January 22, 2010
My beautiful "new" rice cooker
This will seem like a self-indulgent and frivolous post, as I'm not one of those "here's what I ate for breakfast" type bloggers, but I decided to write it anyway, because the technology involved has helped me, and I thought it might be of assistance to some of the readers.
I like rice, and I eat a lot of it. I normally would eat more, except the cooking and saving of it has been somewhat of a nuisance. For years I used this garden variety rice cooker:
It cost less than $20.00 new, and it's now been consigned to gather dust in the basement. When I would use it, inevitably rice would stick to the inside, requiring a lot of washing. Not washing, but scouring. Then there's the question of what to do with the uneaten rice. Left in the old rice cooker on "warm," it gets too warm, drying out and sticking ever more fanatically to the pot. Stick it in the fridge and it gets so dried out as to become virtually inedible. Maybe not totally inedible, but microwaving dried out rice hardly makes for an appetizing meal.
Anyway, perhaps I hadn't been paying as much attention as I should have (I don't watch cooking shows on television, for God's sake), but I had pretty much assumed that all rice cookers were alike in their basic functionality. ("When you've seen one ricer cooker, you've seen them all.")
I now realize that if you like rice, having a good rice cooker is very important, and that I had the wrong kind of rice cooker. Ironically, it took another shopping error to made me realize the error of my ways. While looking for a large bag of rice at a local Asian food store, I inadvertently bought a bag of Thai Sanpotang sweet rice instead of regular rice. Was I in for a rude awakening. Sweet rice (aka glutinous rice) is a delicacy, as anyone who likes Thai or Vietnamese food can appreciate, but it is also very, very difficult to cook (as I discovered with my first batch). Unless you have a special Thai steamer or a "smart" rice cooker, you will find the results disappointing.
However, if you merely go to Amazon and enter "rice cooker," you'll be overwhelmed. To even begin to zero in on what you need, the word "fuzzy" should be included in the search. That's because only a rice cooker with fuzzy logic can distinguish between regular rice and sweet (or other forms of) rice.
I didn't know where to begin, but I quickly learned rice cookers like my old one are old, outmoded technology. Or, as this site quipped, a "historical artifact":
Why do stores like Walmart and Target, even online shops like Amazon or cooking.com always have this kind of rice cooker for sale? Well, we don't know. But they're obviously clueless about rice preparation. The glass-lid style of rice cooker you see at left, which we estimate as 95% of what you'll find in American stores, is practically an ancient relic throughout Asia. These cookers are a bit cheaper, but they don't have a proper ventilation system to capture and maintain moisture, so unless you serve the rice immediately after it's cooked it dries out. There is no "keep warm" feature either. You can still find this style in some Asian households that haven't yet upgraded, but not in Asian stores because modern versions such as ours have been available for over 15 years. So if you're looking for a rice cooker, buy what's best not a historical artifact.Except that "what's best" can cost hundreds of dollars, and it is very confusing comparing the innumerable brands.
Chinese master chef Martin Yan promotes the Sanyo line as the best for the money, and they look pretty damned good.
The one he's demonstrating is the Sanyo ECJ F50S, and they can be had on ebay for under $100.00.
But I'm not just cheap, I'm very cheap, and I'm also afraid to spend a lot of money for something and then learn that I could have gotten something better for less money, or a lot better for only slightly more.
Still, I'm always a sucker for a super good deal. And did I ever find one on Craigslist! Listed among a whole bunch of items offered in a moving sale last weekend was a "National rice cooker," offered free! National is a leading Japanese brand (for years the name on items branded as Panasonic in other countries), and in the picture it looked like it might be one of the "smart" rice cookers, so I went right over. The "sellers" were a nice Japanese couple getting ready to move back to Japan, and the thing was plugged in and working.
Here it is:
I couldn't have been happier to take it off their hands, and as the buttons were in Japanese, they were kind enough to write out translations on a piece of paper. It has a timer, a porridge and risotto setting, a cleaning setting, a quick cook setting, and if you just use the rice setting they said it was smart enough to figure out what kind of rice you're using.
Searching online, I learned that Panasonic made an identical model for sale in English-speaking countries, and I downloaded a picture showing the buttons for easy reference:
My only complaint isn't really a complaint, but I would very much like to know the meaning of the extra measuring lines to the right on the inside of the pan:
Anyway, I was initially skeptical over how well it would work, but still, I hadn't risked a cent. I didn't want to have a showdown right away over complicated items, so I started by cooking plain rice, which I wanted to be ready for lunch the next day. I heard it making little rumblings and hissing sounds during the half hour or so before I had set it to be ready, and then at exactly 12:30, a little beeping sound went off, and it switched to warmer status. Absolutely perfect rice. Not one grain sticking anywhere.
The next day I thought I would try out the porridge setting with grits, so I put in grits and water and set it to be ready when I woke up. I awoke to perfectly cooked grits.
For the next test, I decided to put it through the much harder ordeal of cooking steel-cut oatmeal. Anyone who has made this knows what a pain in the ass it can be. You have to stir it repeatedly, it's easy to burn, and you can end up with a sticky, lumpy mess. Not something most people want to do first thing in the morning. Well, once again, with this thing I just threw in the oatmeal and water, set the timer, and I'll be damned if I didn't wake up to steel cut oatmeal, cooked to perfection. A gourmet chef couldn't have done any better.
The hardest test I left for last. Would it know how to cook that Thai sticky rice? So last night I rinsed two cups worth, put them in with the right amount of water, and set it to be ready at noon. The moment of truth came when I opened it and saw this perfectly cooked sweet sticky rice, not sticking to the pot, willing to be rolled over into cakes just the way it's supposed to be, and deliciously chewy. I scooped some onto a plate which bounced on itself into a perfectly rounded pile, and it beautifully soaked up some hot bean paste sauce I put on top.
I looked at that thing, and I asked "How can it be so smart?" It knows what to do with whatever I put in there!
Are humans finally becoming outmoded? Far from it; it took a lot of humans and human ingenuity to make such a thing. And it takes a human to decide what to put in it. It also takes a human to know what they are and go out and get one. Still, I'm human and it took me a long to even learn about this technology.
There's a lot of great stuff out there -- if only you know what it is and where it is.
Makes me wonder what else I'm missing.
posted by Eric on 01.22.10 at 03:30 PM
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