How to cook rice: in Asia, it’s no laughing matter

  • Comedian Nigel Ng’s ‘Uncle Roger’ send-up of BBC presenter Hersha Patel’s cooking had Asia in stitches, but our love affair with rice is a serious business
  • Rice features on coats of arms, is appreciated like wine, and the average Asian eats 60kg a year. The secret to cooking it? It’s about how you rock the wok

Food court operator and consultant K.F. Seetoh cooks his rice using a rice cooker so that the grains are cooked more evenly. For the same reason, chef Eric Low prefers to steam his. Ask self-styled “rice girl” Momoko Nakamura, however, and she swears by cooking over a stove.“It tastes better on a stove with an actual flame, instead of through an electric kitchen appliance,” said Nakamura, who never cooks her rice over an induction stove. The former producer for food shows now curates organic rice from farmers across Japan for an international subscription service – much like a wine subscription.Rice, in Asia, is serious business. The culturally diverse region eats a variety of rice – Basmati rice, Jasmine rice, multigrain rice or Japonica rice and more – and cooks it in different ways.

According to Statista, the average person in Asia consumes 60.4kg of rice a year, almost double the world average consumption of 38.4kg of rice per person.China is the world’s largest producer of rice, producing over 148 million metric tons of milled rice, followed by India’s 116 million metric tons and Indonesia’s 36.70 million metric tons.

China is the world’s largest producer of rice. Photo: Jonathan Wong
China is the world’s largest producer of rice. Photo: Jonathan Wong

The price of rice can surge according to demand. For example, in April when droughts kept production low amid the coronavirus pandemic, Thailandincreased its export prices to US$579 per metric ton, from US$510 just a month prior.

Asians are also finicky about which types of rice should accompany what types of food, and how they should be prepared. The Japanese tend to eat short-grain rice that is fluffy, while in Laos people eat glutinous rice steamed in woven baskets. In Cantonese restaurants, some chefs even mix glutinous rice with Jasmine rice or short-grain rice to make thick and smooth congee.

There are also debates about whether it is better to cook the rice over the stove or use a rice cooker, with some swearing by certain brands of rice cookers. In recent years, there has been a growing move from white rice to brown rice and wild rice, which are thought to be healthier.

IN HOT WATER

This love of rice has shot a Malaysian comedian to fame. On July 8, Nigel Ng uploaded a video of his Uncle Roger persona reacting dramatically to a four-minute BBC Food video on how to cook egg fried rice. The way the rice was cooked offended Uncle Roger’s Malaysian Chinese sensibilities.

In the BBC video, the host Hersha Patel uses a cup to measure out how much water to add to the pot, whereas Chinese in Southeast Asia have been taught to stick their index finger into the pot and make sure the water only reaches the first joint of the finger (although Chef Low said this wasn’t right as different types of rice grains required different amounts of water). Another faux pas in the video is that Patel does not wash the rice before cooking it.

But those transgressions were minor. Bigger ones came as – gasp – Patel opens the pot of rice, which looks watery, drains it, and runs water over the rice. “How can you drain rice with colander? This is not pasta,” exclaimed Uncle Roger. “Why you running water through rice? You ruining the rice.”

By August 6, the video had more than nine million views and marketeers churned out ads at BBC Food’s expense. Online retailer Shopee posted an ad for a colander on Facebook with the caption that colanders were for rinsing vegetables or other ingredients, “not to rinse the rice, especially not after you boil it”. “Let’s unite against cruelty against rice,” Shopee said.

In Singapore, supermarket chain NTUC FairPrice put up a Facebook ad for a strainer selling at S$3.50 (US$2.50). “Not just to make an exotic plate of fried rice,” read the ad, “but for filtering your tea leaves and citrus seeds.”

Even Singapore’s prime minister weighed in. On Facebook, Lee Hsien Loong shared an Atlas Obscura article on how rice cookers were invented, making a pun that it was all good “fan” (Chinese for rice), given BBC Food’s “unconventional method of preparing the rice”. Lee also used the post to nudge readers towards brown rice.

As Yurdi Yasmi, International Rice Research Institute’s regional representative for Southeast Asia, puts it: “Rice is the most important crop in Asia.”

Chinese farmers harvest rice crops using combines in Xinghua, Jiangsu province. Photo: AFP
Chinese farmers harvest rice crops using combines in Xinghua, Jiangsu province. Photo: AFP

TOP CROP

In fact, many Asian countries such as China, Vietnam, Laos and Sri Lanka have rice on their coat of arms, said Yasmi. Even the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has rice on its coat of arms. “Many countries would consider food security largely as the availability of sufficient rice for their citizens. More than that, the culture of Asian countries has been built heavily around rice for centuries. People celebrate planting and harvesting seasons, there are dances that symbolise rice cultures, and prayers and rituals are performed for rice,” he said.

Rice is such a huge part of food security that countries have tried persuading citizens to be less dependent on the staple. Indonesia tried to push for that in 2012 to ameliorate rising rice prices. Paul Teng, adjunct senior fellow and food security expert at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, Nanyang Technological University, remembered Singapore trying to get people to eat more bread or noodles instead of rice in the 1960s.

Dr Goh Keng Swee, then Finance Minister, estimated that Singapore would save S$22 million a year and create jobs in local flour mills if people ate more wheat and less imported rice.

These campaigns clearly did not work, said Teng, but what did get people to eat less rice was Bennett’s law – as people become wealthier, they get more of their calories from vegetables, fruit, meat, fish and dairy products instead of carbohydrates.

“As GDP per capita increases, people tend to reduce their dependency on calories in diet and this inevitably sees a reduction in rice consumption. They can afford to buy more expensive foodstuff that are higher in quality and that’s very evident in places like Singapore. Koreans, too, are now eating about half as much rice as they used to,” Teng said.

Patel and Ng have since addressed the widespread teasing, collaborating on a new video in which Patel shows her fried-rice cooking chops to Ng. Still, the food experts said people did actually cook their rice in the manner shown by the BBC. Nakamura said some people in Indiaboiled the rice “like pasta”, and Low said parts of South Asia parboiled their rice and rinsed it before adding it to stews.

“Cook the rice for 15 to 20 minutes so some starch leeches out and they rinse it. Nothing wrong with doing that. I think a lot depends on what you’re expecting from the recipe,” said Low.

Nakamura said: “There are just so many different ways to cook rice and so it’s interesting to see an emotionally charged reaction to the video.”

Why the big hoo-ha? Seetoh said it was because rice was “near and dear to us”.

“Everybody in this part of the world grew up with rice, so it’s a childhood love thing,” he said.

Nakamura, who grew up with an “overflowing” love for rice, said food was “extremely emotional” and it was connected to memory. “Everyone has a memory of it, everyone has an opinion of it, everyone. I don’t know anyone who actually doesn’t like rice. I know people who try not to eat rice because they’re on a diet or whatever. But I really can’t think of anyone who says that they dislike rice.”

A worker carries a sack of rice in Valenzuela, Metro Manila, the Philippines. Photo: Bloomberg
A worker carries a sack of rice in Valenzuela, Metro Manila, the Philippines. Photo: Bloomberg

Yasmi said: “Many Asians regard rice as the most important element of their food. In many cultures, to eat or to have dinner means ‘to eat rice’. It is not a dinner if there is no rice. In many Asian households, cooking rice is also one of the first cooking skills a child would have.”

Ultimately, how the rice is cooked also has to suit the recipe. Low said of the BBC video: “Basically, she’s trying to cook fried rice and it is associated with Chinese cuisine. I guess Uncle Roger is looking at it from a Cantonese perspective and to do it the way she did is completely heinous.”

Comedian Nigel Ng's “Uncle Roger” despairs at BBC Food presenter Hersha Patel's rice-cooking skills. Photo: YouTube
Comedian Nigel Ng’s “Uncle Roger” despairs at BBC Food presenter Hersha Patel’s rice-cooking skills. Photo: YouTube

How then should fried rice be done? Seetoh, after watching countless Singapore hawkers and chefs, has the answer: cook the rice and let it cool to remove as much of the moisture as possible; it can even be kept overnight in the fridge.

“Once the rice is dry and rested, the guy puts it in a wok and then the rice never stops moving on the wok or it will stick and break. So a good chef will have a well-seasoned wok where they don’t really fry, they rock the wok and keep rocking the wok so the rice is forever flying and landing – it never sits for more than a few seconds. So they are only giving char to the outside of the grain while the inside is soft and fluffy,” Seetoh said.

By : Kok Xinghui – SCMP

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