You know something is wrong with Amina, a newly-wed wife in one of the Arabian Nights stories, when she won’t eat her rice. Says Sidi-Nouman, her husband, in the Andrew Lang version (Wordsworth Classics, £2.50): “I ate mine, as was natural, with a spoon, but great was my surprise to notice that my wife, instead of doing the same, drew from her pocket a little case, from which she selected a long pin, and by the help of this pin conveyed her rice grain by grain to her mouth.” Sidi-Nouman’s initial concern is that she’s worried about frugality: “If you are anxious to teach me not to be wasteful, you have no cause for alarm.”
It turns out that Amina is a sort of witch: she keeps company with ghouls and sustains herself by sneaking out at night to eat the flesh of newly-buried corpses. I like to think the moral of the story is that that is the sort of person who doesn’t eat rice. Rice is serious business.
In Japan, until the late 19th century, calculating the value of land was done via rice: it was based on an estimate of how much rice it could produce. The unit was the koku, defined as the amount of rice that could sustain a person for a year. The feudal lords’ precedence at court was partly defined by how many koku their lands could produce.
Rice can be a matter of life or death. In Japan this year two people have died, and a dozen more were hospitalised, after eating mochi (say mo-kee, not mo-chee), a chewy rice cake eaten in massive quantities to celebrate New Year. Mochi are sticky, traditionally made from cooked glutinous rice pounded with a gigantic wooden mallet into a dough, although today making them from rice flour is usual. If you don’t chew them enough they can get stuck in the throat. One or two people die every year; the most in recent years was nine, back in 2015. Ironically, mochi are eaten because they are a symbol of longevity: they stretch and stretch without breaking.
Reading the manga (comic book) Oishinbo (“The Gourmet”), I got a sense of rice’s importance. I should first explain that manga exist for many genres which Western comic books just don’t cover, including food-related ones: there are recipe manga, restaurant review manga, competitive baking manga. Oishinbo, which is aimed at adults, follows a young journalist, Shiro Yamaoka, attempting to create the “Ultimate Menu” for his employer, the Tozai News, while his estranged, villainous father, a world-famous potter and gourmet, tries to thwart him. (In the context of manga, this isn’t even silly: in wine manga The Drops Of God, a young man has to work out his deceased father’s 13 favourite wines in order to inherit his estate.) Oishinbo ran for 30 years from 1983, and sold around 130 million volumes. In the volume published in English as “The Joy of Rice”, the food emerges as a symbol of national pride: as Shiro tries to explain to (of course) the deputy prime minister, who is considering liberalising import laws on rice: “To the Japanese, rice is something more than food.” Elsewhere in the volume, a great gourmet eating rice describes it thus: “Look at the way the rice is shining . . . It looks like jewels.”
I absolutely empathise with rice obsession. One of my sisters once called me a rice whisperer. I used to be shocked when I found out someone didn’t know how to cook rice. (I am no longer shocked, just disappointed.) The cooking method I learned from my mother, who was taught it by a Persian friend, is to use your hand to measure the depth of the water on the rice; it should come up to the first knuckle. (The implication is that if you don’t have the right size hands, you just can’t cook rice.) Bring it to the boil, stir it once, turn the heat right down, and leave it cooking (lid on) until the water is absorbed and it’s done (about 20 minutes). (On some level I am convinced this is the only correct way but if cooking a large amount measuring more exactly will avert disaster: a good ratio of rice to water is somewhere around 1:1.25.)
I am not sure English vocabulary is quite enough to explain why rice is delicious. We know the name of the chemical which makes fragrant rice (basmati, jasmine, etc) fragrant — the very catchy 2-Acetyl-1-pyrroline, aka 2AP. You find it, apparently, in buttered popcorn, and in pandan, an aromatic south-east Asian leaf used for flavouring. Rice is sweet-smelling, fragrant, and so on, but I don’t know why a tepid spoonful of leftover rice straight from the pot before you put it away is so good. Good rice is always called “fluffy”, a word otherwise used for baked potatoes and candyfloss. The deeper you go on rice the more legends you can find: it is said, for example, that a truly skilled sushi chef can form a nigiri with the rice grains all parallel.
I don’t think anyone has ever managed to cook the right amount of rice for a meal. I grew up with a semi-mystical measuring method: One Handful Of Rice Per Person. Fortunately, rice is the best leftover: fry it with ketchup, wrap it in a thin omelette and you have the European/Japanese hybrid omuraisu, rice omelette, classically served with demi-glace, i.e. gravy. For a sort of pilaf, sauté it with onion in some butter, whole spices such as allspice berries, and plenty of chopped herbs (chervil and dill are particularly good). But if you are feeling brave make mochi: mix 160g sweet rice flour (mochiko) with 180 ml water until it forms a soft dough, then steam it for 20 minutes. Put the dough into a pan over low heat and add sugar, little by little, up to 400g. When the sugar is completely dissolved into the dough, turn it out onto a baking sheet covered with cornstarch or potato starch, shape it into small rounds (like little buns), or roll it thin and use it to wrap fillings — ice cream, strawberries, and red bean paste (available from Asian supermarkets) are good. Happy chewing.