How to cook rice: in Asia, it’s no laughing matter
- Comedian Nigel Ng’s ‘Uncle Roger’ send-up of BBC presenter Hersha Patel’s cooking had Asia in stitches, but our love affair with rice is a serious business
- Rice features on coats of arms, is appreciated like wine, and the average Asian eats 60kg a year. The secret to cooking it? It’s about how you rock the wok
Food court operator and consultant K.F. Seetoh cooks his rice using a rice cooker so that the grains are cooked more evenly. For the same reason, chef Eric Low prefers to steam his. Ask self-styled “rice girl” Momoko Nakamura, however, and she swears by cooking over a stove.
According to Statista, the average person in Asia consumes 60.4kg of rice a year, almost double the world average consumption of 38.4kg of rice per person.
There are also debates about whether it is better to cook the rice over the stove or use a rice cooker, with some swearing by certain brands of rice cookers. In recent years, there has been a growing move from white rice to brown rice and wild rice, which are thought to be healthier.
IN HOT WATER
In the BBC video, the host Hersha Patel uses a cup to measure out how much water to add to the pot, whereas Chinese in Southeast Asia have been taught to stick their index finger into the pot and make sure the water only reaches the first joint of the finger (although Chef Low said this wasn’t right as different types of rice grains required different amounts of water). Another faux pas in the video is that Patel does not wash the rice before cooking it.
But those transgressions were minor. Bigger ones came as – gasp – Patel opens the pot of rice, which looks watery, drains it, and runs water over the rice. “How can you drain rice with colander? This is not pasta,” exclaimed Uncle Roger. “Why you running water through rice? You ruining the rice.”
As Yurdi Yasmi, International Rice Research Institute’s regional representative for Southeast Asia, puts it: “Rice is the most important crop in Asia.”
Rice is such a huge part of food security that countries have tried persuading citizens to be less dependent on the staple. Indonesia tried to push for that in 2012 to ameliorate rising rice prices. Paul Teng, adjunct senior fellow and food security expert at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, Nanyang Technological University, remembered Singapore trying to get people to eat more bread or noodles instead of rice in the 1960s.
Dr Goh Keng Swee, then Finance Minister, estimated that Singapore would save S$22 million a year and create jobs in local flour mills if people ate more wheat and less imported rice.
These campaigns clearly did not work, said Teng, but what did get people to eat less rice was Bennett’s law – as people become wealthier, they get more of their calories from vegetables, fruit, meat, fish and dairy products instead of carbohydrates.
“As GDP per capita increases, people tend to reduce their dependency on calories in diet and this inevitably sees a reduction in rice consumption. They can afford to buy more expensive foodstuff that are higher in quality and that’s very evident in places like Singapore. Koreans, too, are now eating about half as much rice as they used to,” Teng said.
“Cook the rice for 15 to 20 minutes so some starch leeches out and they rinse it. Nothing wrong with doing that. I think a lot depends on what you’re expecting from the recipe,” said Low.
Nakamura said: “There are just so many different ways to cook rice and so it’s interesting to see an emotionally charged reaction to the video.”
Why the big hoo-ha? Seetoh said it was because rice was “near and dear to us”.
“Everybody in this part of the world grew up with rice, so it’s a childhood love thing,” he said.
Nakamura, who grew up with an “overflowing” love for rice, said food was “extremely emotional” and it was connected to memory. “Everyone has a memory of it, everyone has an opinion of it, everyone. I don’t know anyone who actually doesn’t like rice. I know people who try not to eat rice because they’re on a diet or whatever. But I really can’t think of anyone who says that they dislike rice.”
Yasmi said: “Many Asians regard rice as the most important element of their food. In many cultures, to eat or to have dinner means ‘to eat rice’. It is not a dinner if there is no rice. In many Asian households, cooking rice is also one of the first cooking skills a child would have.”
Ultimately, how the rice is cooked also has to suit the recipe. Low said of the BBC video: “Basically, she’s trying to cook fried rice and it is associated with Chinese cuisine. I guess Uncle Roger is looking at it from a Cantonese perspective and to do it the way she did is completely heinous.”
How then should fried rice be done? Seetoh, after watching countless Singapore hawkers and chefs, has the answer: cook the rice and let it cool to remove as much of the moisture as possible; it can even be kept overnight in the fridge.
“Once the rice is dry and rested, the guy puts it in a wok and then the rice never stops moving on the wok or it will stick and break. So a good chef will have a well-seasoned wok where they don’t really fry, they rock the wok and keep rocking the wok so the rice is forever flying and landing – it never sits for more than a few seconds. So they are only giving char to the outside of the grain while the inside is soft and fluffy,” Seetoh said. ■