The possession of an electronic rice cooker, or suihanki in Japanese, is something to which everyone must aspire. It is said that when a rice cooker not only delivers perfect Japanese rice but also plays a cheery tune when it does so, ultimate satisfaction will ensue. Indeed, I would be a perfectly contented human, were it not for the fact that my own musically-inclined rice cooker is currently consigned to storage. However am I coping? Can Japanese rice be ready without a jingle being played? It’s time to find out.
Of course, people cooked rice successfully for many centuries before the age of specialised counter-top appliances. Once upon a time, I used to cook Japanese rice on the hob with no problems whatsoever. Now, having accidentally plunged myself back into a more primitive time, I have had to reacquire this vital skill. Luckily, it really isn’t that hard.
If you have:
- never attempted to cook Japanese rice in a saucepan,
- given up after a bad experience, or
- decided to forsake electronics for some reason,
then the recipe at the bottom of this page is for you. First, you might enjoy the following information about Japanese rice.
What is Japanese rice and where can I find it?
the geeky part
The rice used in Japanese cuisine encompasses a number of cultivars of a subspecies of Asian rice called oryza sativa L. ssp. Japonica.
Japonica’s short, rounded grains are translucent and very hard when raw. Due to a low amylose content, they are moist and moderately sticky when cooked. Japonica is markedly different from high-amylose Indica, whose grains are usually dry and separate when cooked. Basmati is a prime example of the Indica subspecies.
Not all East Asian rices are interchangeable. Jasmine rice is in fact a variety of long-grained Indica, while ‘sticky rice’ and ‘glutinous rice’, are cultivars of Japonica with even less amylose than the kind usually eaten in Japan – or none at all. This results in a chewier cooked product in which the grains start to lose their definition. In Japan, glutinous rice is not consumed at mealtimes, but cooked and pounded to make delicious mochi. This video by Great Big Story shows the traditional method:
the practical part
Although certain Japonica cultivars are particularly prized for making sushi, there is no such thing as a one-trick pony ‘sushi rice’. In British supermarkets, the term seems to be a ploy for selling tiny bags of rice at inflated prices or as part of sushi-making meal kits. If it’s labelled ‘sushi rice’ though, you can definitely serve it with all Japanese dishes. You may also come across brands of American-grown Japonica rice intended specifically for Japanese cuisine. Likewise, you can use this rice for both sushi and regular eating. You can buy the reliable brand Nishiki from Tesco and Sainsbury’s both online and in larger shops. Some independent Asian supermarkets stock this and other brands in 5 or 10 kilo bags.
You may be tempted to experiment with other varieties of rice in your Japanese cooking. Let me save you some time: don’t! I have tried it with pretty much every sort of rice, and reluctantly I have to admit that nothing really works. This goes against my usual instinct to compromise and make do, but here’s the thing: when you’re eating plain rice with no flavourings or sauces, it has to be pleasant in its own right. The only thing that comes close in terms of moisture, stickiness and texture is, weirdly, a half-and-half mixture of ordinary long grain rice and pudding rice. This trick is well known among Japanese students living in the UK. Having tried it for research, though, I think it should remain a ‘poor student’ hack, as the result is inevitably flavourless and a bit sad.
how to cook Japanese rice without a rice cooker
Now we’ve probably covered everything you wanted to know about Japanese rice and more, it’s time to move on to the cooking method. The ‘recipe’ below is for four servings; it will work fine if adjusted for two. However, as a general rule, the more you cook at once, the better it will turn out.
You will need:
- 1 cup Japanese rice (Nishiki or any brand of ‘sushi rice’)
- a lidded saucepan
- aluminium foil
- a fine sieve (optional)
washing the rice
- Place the rice in the saucepan.
- Cover the rice with water and gently wash the rice by swirling and folding by hand. The water will become milky with excess starch.
- Carefully drain off the water.
- Repeat steps 2-3 until the water poured off is clear rather than milky.
drying and soaking the rice (optional step)
- Place the rice in a fine sieve and allow to dry in the air for half an hour.
- When the rice is dry, return it to saucepan and add the water as in the following step but instead of cooking immediately, leave the rice to soak for at least half an hour before proceeding to cook.
cooking the rice
- To the rice add the same volume of water plus a little extra (enough to cover it by a finger’s width).
- Seal the saucepan completely, using foil if necessary. Over a medium-high heat, bring to a rapid, audible boil. As soon as this point is reached, reduce the heat to the lowest setting.
- Cook over this very low heat for 10 minutes.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat completely without uncovering it and leave for at least 10 more minutes.
fluffing and serving the rice
- Uncover the saucepan and use a moistened spoon to fluff up the rice using gentle cutting and folding motions. There should be no burnt layer at the bottom. Serve immediately or replace the lid to prevent the rice from drying out.
bonus rice cooking tips
- As I have indicated, the drying and soaking phase is completely optional. It is also the most time-consuming part of the process. For this reason, I would only bother with it if I were preparing sushi, or trying to impress somebody with a particularly discerning palate for rice, e.g. my wife. It does make a difference to the final texture somehow.
- Some brands like Nishiki are specially milled to remove starchiness. This is supposed to eliminate the need to wash the rice before cooking; nevertheless, I’ve always had the best results when I’ve washed it anyway.
- If you find it wasteful to use so much water to clean the rice, there is a little folk wisdom you might be overlooking. While you should throw away the water from the first rinse to ensure the removal of any dust or dirt, you may save and repurpose the water from subsequent rinses if you like. Supposed household uses for rice water include washing dishes, starching clothes, watering plants, cleaning mirrors, removing bitterness from certain vegetables, and cleansing skin and hair. Let me know if you try any of these!
- Tradition dictates that a serving of rice is precisely two scoops; however, the size of the scoops is completely up to you. As far as I’m aware, this belongs to the same family of traditions as stirring porridge clockwise; in other words, it may safely be ignored in most company.
- Other ingredients can be added to the rice before cooking; this variation is known as takikomi-gohan. Otherwise, you can top your cooked rice with furikake or a pickle such as umeboshi.
I hope this post helps you when you next try to cook Japanese rice. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions, geeky or otherwise!