Everyday Chinese Rice

白飯

According to one of my more reliable reference books, the average Chinese consumes a pound of rice a day (compared to the average American consumption of seven pounds a year). That’s a lot of rice! Certainly it was the kind of consumption I saw all around me during my years in Asia, when several bowls of rice per meal was the habit of young and old, and the giant family rice cooker, the omnipresent rice bowls, and the luxuriant paddies outside my study window were all part of the daily scene. Rice is life in most of China, and its preparation is one of the day’s most steady rhythms.

  • The everyday Chinese rice bowl is filled with plain white rice, half-boiled and half-steamed, unseasoned by salt, oil, or stock. Brown rice is not eaten, not even by the poor, and seasonings are left to the other dishes one eats as an accompaniment to rice. The mainstay, the central part of the meal, has for centuries been the unadorned white bowlful. One Ching dynasty gourmet reportedly sent his maid scurrying to collect the dew from wild roses and cassia blossoms to infuse his rice—the modern equivalent, I suppose, to a squirt of orange flower water being added to the pot—but he was the exception in a tradition of simplicity.
  • The Chinese have a standard method for cooking rice and, in Asia, a preference for short-grain rice. While short-grain rice is not the American favorite, it is absolutely delicious when cooked properly, and the thickish, slightly creamy grains are eager helpmates to spicy or saucy dishes—the ones that go best with rice. The method is simple, a matter of one heavy pot and a half hour of time from start to serving.

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Ingredients

  • 1 cup short- or medium-grain white rice
  • cups cold water
  • or
  • 1 cup long-grain white rice
  • cups cold water

if you are doubling the recipe

  • 2 cups short- or medium-grain white rice
  • cups cold water
  • or
  • 2 cups long-grain white rice
  • 3 cups cold water

Method

Rinsing the rice

Put the dry rice in a large bowl, cover generously with cold water, then stir the rice in circles with your hand for 10–15 seconds, or until the water turns milky white. Drain the rice immediately into a large sieve or colander, then return the rice to the bowl, cover again with cold water, and repeat the process. Do this 5 or 6 times, for a total of 3 to 4 minutes, by which time the rinsing water should be nearly clear. Stir with increased gentleness as you near the final rinsing, as the rice will absorb a bit of water in the process and be susceptible to breaking. Shake off any excess water, then proceed at once to cook the rice, or leave it to sit in the colander for up to an hour before cooking.

Cooking the rice

If you are cooking a single cup of raw rice, use a heavy 2–2½-quart pot with a tight-fitting lid. If you are doubling the recipe, use a heavy 4–4½-quart lidded pot. The general rule with rice is to use a pot with more depth than breadth as you go to cook larger amounts, lest the water evaporate too quickly during the cooking.

Put the rinsed and well-drained rice in the pot, then add the appropriate amount of cold water for the grain and the amount of rice you are using. Do not bother to stir the rice, now or anytime during cooking. Bring the water to a rolling boil over high heat. When the big starchy bubbles climb nearly to the rim, in about 30 seconds, cover the pot at once with a tight-fitting lid and reduce the heat to low. What you want inside the pot is a slow, bubbly simmer, which requires either a low or moderately low setting depending on the stove. Check the simmer by putting your ear next to the pot and listening for the bubbling within, and by observing the tiny wisps of steam that should be escaping from around the lid. Do not uncover the pot.

Simmer the rice under the tight lid for 15 minutes, then move the pot off the heat, and let it sit undisturbed for 15–20 minutes. Do not open the lid even once; the rice is still at work within, absorbing the steam and plumping to tenderness. (Note that this “waiting” time is a bit longer for Chinese-style rice than is customarily given for American-style long-grain rice. The extra minutes mean extra tenderness and creaminess, which I personally like far better.)

When the waiting time is up, lift the lid, then gently fluff the rice with a fork, lifting the grains from the bottom and tossing gently to separate them. Serve the rice immediately, or let it sit in the covered pot where it will stay warm for another 15–20 minutes.

Holding, storing, and reheating rice

In the course of an average Chinese meal, people refill their bowls several times. The covered pot will alone keep the rice warm for 15–20 minutes, but if you are anticipating extended service, then the rice may be kept warm for hours if it is placed in a covered bowl in a steamer and kept over low heat. The gentle steam keeps the rice hot without drying it, and the lid prevents extra moisture from creeping in and making the rice mushy.

Once cool, rice may be sealed and refrigerated several days. It is perfect for fried rice, or may be reheated by steaming in a covered bowl until hot. You may also, Western-fashion, reheat the rice in a foil-covered baking dish in a hot oven, but I like the steaming method better.

And a note on dry rice

If you have followed the measurements and instructions given above carefully and the rice is not perfectly tender to the bite when you fluff it, then you may be using rice that is very old and therefore dry. You can rescue the first batch by sprinkling it with an extra tablespoon or so of water, then steaming it over moderately high heat in an open bowl until tender, about 10 minutes. If you use the same rice again, begin with a bit more water. Experience will quickly teach you just what you need for your rice, your stove, your pot and—most of all—your taste.

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