Top | Unexplained Bacon

Steamed up

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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Without fail, whenever the conversation turns to rice cookers, somebody always grouses, "Why do you need to waste counter space on one of those? I can make perfectly good rice in a pot on the stove."

Oh, come now. If you can cook perfectly good rice on the stove, why do they sell $400 rice cookers? Wait, don't answer that.

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I don't have a $400 rice cooker, but I do have a $100 rice cooker, courtesy of Sanyo, which sent me a loaner and then refused to take it back. This means you should probably disbelieve everything I say about the Sanyo, but hey, I stand by my record of speaking truth to power.

I've spent the last several weeks cooking rice in the $100 rice cooker (the Sanyo ECJ-S35 model), my $24 rice cooker (the Panasonic SRG06FG model), and a regular old saucepan. 

Instead of learning a lot about rice cookers, however, I became philosophical. In fact, let me begin by asking you a question.

h3. Do you love rice?

Do you love rice the way Shizuo Tsuji, the author of Japanese Cooking, loves rice?

bq. Rice is a beautiful food. It is beautiful when it grows — precision rows of sparkling green stalks shooting up to reach the hot summer sun. It is beautiful when harvested, autumn gold sheaves piled in diked, patchwork paddies. It is beautiful when, once threshed, it enters granary bins like a cataract of tiny seed-pearls. It is beautiful when cooked by a practiced hand, pure white and sweetly fragrant.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="A rice cooker treats one of our favorite foods with respect."]

Do you love rice the way Shiro Yamaoka, the hero of the Oishinbo manga series, loves rice? Yamaoka challenges his estranged father to a battle for supremacy in onigiri (rice ball) making, and rails against improperly cooked rice. 

"This is TERRIBLE!" screams Yamaoka. "You can't even see the shape of the rice. Rice like this is INEDIBLE!"

(Incidentally, Yamaoka is a newspaper food writer who loves Japanese food, has few ambitions in life, and would rather eat than write. Yes, there is a bestselling manga series ABOUT ME.)

There's a reason why I chose these two quotes — the serene and the snappish — about Japanese rice: Most rice cookers are made in Japan and are created with Japanese short-grain white rice in mind. That's not to say they can't cook other types of rice — I'm getting there — but making a Japanese family's basic rice is what they're all about.

Okay, so you love rice. You know the saying, "if you love something, set it free"? That, to me, is what the rice cooker is all about.

h3. Freedom from fear

I don't know if I have Tsuji's practiced hand, but I have been cooking a lot of rice lately. (Lucky me — it has resulted in a lot of stir-fried lunches and kimchi fried rice.) The haters are right: it's not very hard to make good rice on the stovetop.

However, it's not going to be any better (and probably worse) than what you make in a rice cooker, and you have to think about it. I find it thrilling to solve kitchen problems and have several things cooking at once, but rice is often a grain too far.

Furthermore, I guarantee the people whining about counter space have more counter space than I do, because nobody has less counter space than I do unless their kitchen is in a boxcar or on a dinghy.

A rice cooker can sit on the dining-room table, or in the bedroom (it makes a good humidifier), or any number of other places where food prep is frowned upon. It doesn't elbow a skillet off the stove.

That's the practical defense of the rice cooker. But there's more to it than that. The rice cooker does its job better than any other appliance in my home. It cooks rice better than the vacuum cleaner vacuums, better than the toaster toasts, better than the oven bakes, better even than the refrigerator refrigerates (my fridge sometimes goes psycho and freezes a dozen eggs).

In an age where so many of our appliances almost work, having a rice cooker in the family is deeply reassuring. It treats one of our favorite foods with the proper respect.

h3. Which cooker?

Expensive rice cookers offer wacky features like induction cooking, pressure cooking, and neuro-fuzzy cooking. I highly doubt this buys you anything over a $100 cooker for making white rice, and adding a bunch of new capabilities to the rice cooker ruins its dependable simplicity. I guarantee it doesn't pressure-cook as well as a stand-alone pressure cooker. The $100 Sanyo claims to make the Korean crusty-bottomed rice dish known as dolsot bibimbap. It doesn't. 

Cheap, $25 rice cookers are still pretty good. My Panasonic slightly toasts the bottom of the rice (many people consider this a plus), and it doesn't have a keep-warm function, but these are minor concerns.

Choose a 3-cup-capacity rice cooker for up to three people and a 6-cup model for up to twice that.

h3. Which rice?

What about other types of rice? The other rice I eat most often is Thai jasmine, which also cooks very well in any rice cooker. American-grown long-grain white rice and basmati rice also come out great.
 
I'm going to sidestep the question of brown rice. I've made brown rice in both cookers and thought it came out fine, but since I don't love brown rice the way I love short-grain white rice, I can't tell you if it came out great. 

And Thai sticky rice will definitely be the kind of disaster that would send Shiro Yamaoka into conniptions.

I started out thinking there would be an easy answer to the question of whether you should get a rice cooker and, if so, which one to buy. I ended up in a philosophical thicket. This happens to me a lot. Sitting in my thicket, eating plain rice, it's almost spiritual.

Tetsu Kariya, the creator of Oishinbo, can have the last word. If you nod along vigorously, well, you probably already own a rice cooker.

bq. Most kinds of food taste better when they are placed on rice rather than eating them on their own . . . rather than eating elegantly by taking a bite of the accompanying dish and then a bite of the rice, the food tastes much better if you just shovel them into your mouth at the same time.

p(bio). [matthew.reviews@gmail.com "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle.


reference-image, l