Rice... It's time to confess.
Yes, it’s that time. Time to break into the real stereotypes of Japan, and all of Asia really. It is a common belief among the western world that Japanese people eat rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. Honestly, that is probably not too far from the truth, they do eat a lot of rice. But, I am not writing to dispel or prove stereotypes today, I am writing to confess.
Ooo, a confession. Better read closely!
I would like to confess to the whole world my ignorance of rice. I’m sorry if that wasn’t the exciting gossip provoking confession you were looking for, but it’s true. In fact, if we go right back to my first experience in Japan, when I was a tiny little lady of 12, I didn’t even like rice. My mother was paranoid that I would starve to death on my two weeks stay in Japan. I didn’t starve to death evidently, instead, I returned to Australia liking rice. But that says nothing for my ignorance.
I remember when I first arrived in my new apartment here in Miyazaki. As a JET program participant, I had taken over the apartment of the previous English teacher. She ever so kindly, had left me an apartment full of sticky notes, for which I am eternally grateful. She had also hand-written a manual for all the appliances now in my possession. (Bless her!) One of those new toys was a rice cooker. I had seen a rice cooker before, but I was completely unaware of how much I love them. They are the simplest most independent cooking contraption that I have ever known. The rice goes in, the water goes in, one button is pressed, the rice cooker beeps (or perhaps plays a delightful tune), and the cooked rice comes out. Presto, rice. You can even set a timer so that you come home, or wake up to freshly made rice. It’s no wonder I quickly used up the supply of rice that my pre had left me. So, off to the store I went.
Enter problem number one, the rice aisle in the supermarket. The ignorant foreigner (that would be me if you are beginning your reading on this paragraph) does not know which rice to buy. There are almost as many rice options as there are soy sauce options. Which, to put it in terms that a westerner might understand, is comparable to perhaps the amount of cereal varieties in your local store. I stood looking at my selection. Should I choose the prettiest one? Should I choose the cheapest one? Should I pick a small one, a big one, the one closest to the counter… why…? In the end, I observed an old lady, and bought the exact same one as she did. If it’s good enough for her, it must be good enough for me. Huzzah for stalking old ladies around the supermarket! (I also recommend stalking people for parking spaces in a crowded car park. No other forms of stalking are recommended.)
Six months on, I encountered a new form of rice ignorance. This is where it starts to get really embarrassing, because this could very well be a “that’s just you” moment. Meaning that every other foreigner actually knew that, and I live a sheltered life under a rock. I participated in a guided tour for foreigners of a supermarket. This was probably the most insightful day of my life in Japan. There were so many aisles in the supermarket that I had avoided up to that point. It’s extremely difficult to describe for those of you who have never been to Japan. But, imagine walking around and not recognizing a single brand name, packaging, cut of meat/fish, and even vegetables may look different to what you are used to. Cereal comes in a bag, not a box! On that day, I learned that there is washed rice and unwashed rice. I had been eating unwashed rice for six months, heaven forbid, am I going to die?!? Actually no, it’s more about the taste than any diseases that are festering in the rice fields. Washing rice will make for an extremely tasty dinner, versus a so-so dinner with unwashed rice. Well that’s what I was told anyway.
Wind forward another six months, and I am on a weekend away with a lovely Japanese family that I met through school. They have two adorable little boys, and are going to Australia for a vacation this Christmas. We are also with another young family, with another two little boys. The fathers have taken the boys outside for a walk, quite the task with four boys under the age of four I might add! The mothers and I are preparing dinner. Onigiri (rice balls) are one of the items on the menu. I ask what I can do to help prepare. My friend looks around, assumingly looking for a nice simple task for me. I am given charge of washing the rice. Great! So glad that I learned that rice needs to be washed, that could have been awkward! Unfortunately, that's not the awkward part.
This is the last confession of ignorance that I have (so far). How does one wash rice? Ok, this may seem like a really stupid question, but think about it for a second. How do you usually wash vegetables or other raw materials that you will use in your cooking? A strainer? How small is a grain of rice? Smaller than the holes of a strainer? That’s my excuse and I am sticking to it. Clearly, it still is a stupid question, as a three year old Japanese child is most likely able to wash rice. But, just in case there is anyone out there that really is as ignorant as I was, I will fill you in. You put the rice in the detachable rice cooker bowl, you put in water, you use your fingers to swish and swirl the rice around until the water becomes a murky white color, and then you pour the water out gently, leaving the rice that has sunk to the bottom. Repeat this process until the water becomes clear, which can take a while. On this particular occasion, it was at least ten times of filling and emptying. On another note, I also learnt that day, how simple onigiri are to make, and how tasty they are. Ignorance is not bliss after all, knowing how to select, buy, wash and use a rice cooker, results in far more bliss, and a full stomach.
I hope that this blog entry has left you enlightened, rather than left you in hysterics, rolling on the flour laughing at my ignorance. Although, I suppose that wouldn’t be a waste of internet space either, a laugh is a laugh. So to wrap this all up, I have a picture of the product. While I was writing this, my rice cooker was making some lunch for me. I added some gomashio (black sesame and salt mix), and practiced my triangle making for these delicious rice balls, which I am now going to eat. Itadakimasu! (A form of saying thanks for the meal, uttered before you eat.)