Over on gourmet.com, Lillian Chou writes about a rice-cooker revolution. I'm not convinced it's such a great thing.
When people ask me how I grew to be so tall, I tell them it's not milk because I hate milk and the same goes for bananas. I tell them, it was the white rice. My friends marvel at the fact that I can cook two cups of rice and sometimes eat up all of that in one sitting. I love white rice and can polish off a bowl or two at Chinese restaurants.
But I admit, I use a rice cooker and every time I do, I feel a little guilty, a little too American. Shouldn't I be paying more homage to my roots by at least making an authentic pot of rice? I never could figure out how to do it right - what was the right amount of water or the right amount of time to cook it? It would turn out too sticky and wet, or too dry. I suffer from a Goldilocks syndrome. Am I really Chinese?
Rice in a rice cooker is for convenience; it will never taste as good as a stovetop pot of rice with the burned crust at the bottom. That crust is what makes a pot of rice real. After dinner, my grandma used to scrape up that charred layer on the bottom of the pot. She would mold a few grains of soft rice into the crusty bits in the palms of her hands, forming rice balls. She would sprinkle them with a little salt and hand them to my sister and me. The ones that were mostly soft rice were never as good.
Next my grandma would put water back into the pot and boil up what was left, making "fan jew", a rice soup, in that very Chinese way, not wasting a bit. Sometimes she would let it boil a bit too long and a burnt smell would start to waft through the kitchen and my dad would exclaim in Cantonese, "It's burning!" It tasted best when the water would be slightly browned, rice flavor with a hint of carbon, and some of the chunks in the bowl were still slightly crispy.
Sometimes, I try to make the soup with my rice cooker, but it tastes too tinny, too thin. If my grandma were still here today, I think to myself, she would be shaking her head and tsk-tsking me for still being so inept with a pot of rice. But then I remember, she bought me my first rice cooker - if she couldn't do it for me, it was probably best I not even try.