My family gathered around the steaming rice cooker as the timer counted down. In just five minutes, the machine would emit a friendly beep and we’d know the answer: dinner or disaster?
In five minutes, you will, too, but this story begins with a hole in the rice chart.
Let me explain. My friend Molly Wizenberg (of the blog Orangette) and I co-host a podcast called Spilled Milk. On each episode, we choose an ingredient, dish, or (let’s be honest) category of junk food and explore it over the course of 15 minutes.
Molly suggested we do a rice episode. But how to fit the whole world of rice — a subject that has filled many books — into a short broadcast? We knew we wanted to talk about sticky rice. And short-grain rice. And jasmine rice. And, and, and. What we needed was an organizing principle. A periodic table of rice. Something like this:
|Long grain||Medium/short grain|
|Non-sticky||Jasmine, basmati, generic supermarket, or Chinese restaurant rice. Often fragrant.||Japonica or calrose rice. Sushi and risotto rice. Arborio, carnaroli, vialone nano, bomba, valencia, koshihikari, and Carolina Gold are all different varieties of this rice.|
|Sticky||Thai sticky rice/glutinous rice. Must be soaked and steamed and nearly always eaten with fingers. Staple food of Laos and northern Thailand.||???|
Neither of us, embarrassingly enough, had the slightest idea what to put in that last box. OK, we knew a little. We’d seen short-grain sticky rice sold as “mochi rice,” because it’s used to make the chewy Japanese rice cakes (I’ve seen it called “rice taffy,” which is apt) of the same name. Mochi is good stuff, but it’s not really a rice dish.
Perhaps, I speculated, you never hear about this stuff because it’s just too sticky to serve as rice, and that’s why it has to be pounded into taffy. I promised to do a little research just to make sure.
Of course, I was wrong. Mochi rice, sweet rice, Captain Short n’ Sticky, whatever you want to call it — I’d eaten it before. It’s used to make the sticky rice dish you get at dim sum, steamed in a banana leaf with Chinese sausage. Unfortunately, I’ve never liked that stuff. Too gloopy. (You’re welcome to join my daughter in declaring this aversion insane.)
It was nominally spring in Seattle, but it sure felt like midwinter. So I roasted some pork shoulder (Baxter says to cure the pork in salt for several days, but I was too impatient, so I just salted it and put it in the oven, and it was fine). While the pork was cooling, I sliced shiitake mushrooms and rinsed the mochi rice. It all went into the rice cooker: rice, mushrooms, chunks of pork, soy sauce, sake, mirin, and water. (I didn’t have burdock root on hand, and skipped the carrots because my daughter hates them. I declare this aversion insane.)
Yes, I’ve read Roger Ebert's rice-cooker book, and I know you can cook anything in a rice cooker. But this looked ridiculous, all these ingredients piled high above the rice. Not only did it seem like it couldn’t possibly cook evenly, I’d forgotten to soak the rice, which every source agrees is a vital part of cooking mochi rice. Furthermore, I’d forgotten how slow my rice cooker is, so it was well past our usual dinnertime, and everyone was hungry and prepared for the worst. Not that there is anything wrong with scrambled eggs for dinner.
Finally, the chime went off. I popped open the lid and stirred. “This looks pretty good, actually,” I said. The shiitakes had softened and released their savory essence into the rice. Some of the soy sauce and mirin had collected on the bottom and formed a sticky, caramelized layer. I scooped the rice into bowls and garnished each with fresh lime zest and juice. (If you have a ready supply of yuzu, I don’t want to hear about it.)
You can see where this is going. It was one of the best dinners ever. Mochi rice has a characteristic aroma and flavor that I’d describe as pleasantly waxy. It was rich and filling, with a sweetness from the mirin and the rice itself, balanced by the lime juice. Every grain of rice was infused with the flavors of soy sauce, pork, and mushrooms. Bravo, Captain.
Have you ever discovered a new and amazing dish and then realized it’s been all around you? After my first trip to Thailand, when I tasted green papaya salad for the first time, I lamented that I’d never, ever be able to find it in Seattle. Naturally, it had been on the menu at my local Thai restaurant for years.
Okowa, Baxter explained to me, is a subcategory of takikomi gohan, which is any kind of rice with flavorful ingredients cooked into it. (If you cook the rice and then stir ingredients into it, that’s a closely related dish called maze gohan.) In the department-store food halls of Japan, there’s a chain called Okowa Yonehachi which specializes in the stuff. It’s a casual dish. “I have only bought it at the department store food court or made it at home,” says Baxter. “I don’t recall ever seeing it on a menu.”
The distinction between okowa and takikomi gohan is thin, because it’s common to use a mixture of mochi rice and regular short-grain rice, or to throw in other grains such as barley. So I’m going to use the terms interchangeably from here on out.
It turned out that I had plenty of takikomi gohan recipes sitting on my bookshelf. In Everyday Harumi, Harumi Kurihara offers several takes on the dish: rice cooked with sea bream (tai-meshi); rice with pork and carrots; rice with fresh ginger. Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s classic Seductions of Rice has only one takikomi gohan recipe, but it’s the undisputed king of the genre: matsutake gohan, made with supremely expensive pine mushrooms, available only in autumn.
“Takikomi gohan or maze gohan is to feel the season,” says Tadashi Ono, the chef at Matsuri in New York and an author of The Japanese Grill. “For instance, spring we make with green pea or tai-meshi (sea bream). Summer we make with fava bean or shiso. Autumn we make mushrooms or chestnuts. Winter we make oyster or sweet potato.”
This sounded somehow familiar.
The manga series Oishinbo follows the exploits of Shiro Yamaoka, a lazy, food-obsessed reporter at a Tokyo newspaper. In one installment, Yamaoka suggests to the cook at the company cafeteria that he offer a variety of takikomi gohan and maze gohan. But his editor steps in to forbid it:
We’re supposed to laugh at him — he’s a buffoon. But I realized, upon rereading the comic, that I was that buffoon. The reason I’d never made takikomi gohan was that it triggered my prejudice against anything with a whiff of church potluck or casserole about it. This meant I was missing out on years of eating, for example, this okowa:
(Since I know you’re wondering: after Yamaoka waves fragrant takikomi gohan under his nose, the editor relents and claims that his opposition was just a ploy to promote employee team-building.)
You are a better person than I and have no irrational prejudices to dissuade you from making takikomi gohan. You don’t have to soak rice or make your own roast pork. You don’t have to buy special rice (medium-grain supermarket rice such as Niko-Niko brand is fine) or use a rice cooker. It can be made with meat or fish or vegetables (fried tofu is an excellent addition). You start it cooking, you do something else for a while, and then dinner is ready.
The okowa-shaped hole in my rice chart, and my life, is now full.
Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle.
Related recipe: Okowa with Pork and Shiitakes
Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.
Want more? Comb the archives.
An American native
A father’s legacy
The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
Cracking a Filipino favorite