My electric rice cooker has become little more than an expensive clock, sitting on the shelf collecting dust, made obsolete by a simple clay pot. The move seemed counterintuitive, trading the latest technology for a centuries old design, but once I thought about it, it made perfect sense. As I’ve come to realize, modernity has been of ambiguous benefit to the preparation of food, a tale of compromises, sacrificing texture and flavor for the sake of convenience and ease. This was the epiphany when I first cooked on cast iron, and the same impulse ultimately drew me towards the donabe.
Rice, or gohan as it’s called in Japan, had been a nightly ritual as long as I can remember, watching my parents program the electric Zojirushi, and waiting for its robotic chime to call everyone to the table. When I first moved away from home, I bought the the latest model, not knowing any other way.
It made great rice and gave me no cause for complaint, until Bernard, the devil on my shoulder, started talking up his donabe. “Best rice I’ve ever tasted,” he claimed. He had tried it at a cooking class held by Naoko Moore, whose company Toiro imports donabe from a family of artisans in Japan. I had come across her blog on my research for Gorumando and was amazed at what I found, a scrolling history book of traditional techniques and recipes carried into the 21st century.
“But what about the Zojirushi?” I asked him. “Garage,” was his reply. I placed an order to Naoko that night and in a week there was a box on my doorstep.
First there was the beauty of the object itself, its glossy black glaze bubbling with little gasps of air. I told myself that if it didn’t work out it would always look nice on the shelf. Then there was the enjoyment of its use, the simple pleasure of assembling its parts and admiring their natural function, steam rising from the lid like a locomotive train. The rice took about 30 minutes to cook, about the same as the Zojirushi. The results, however, were miles beyond, an extra layer of taste and texture which brought with it the feeling of having accomplished something timeless and great.
Bernard and I have a mutual appreciation of food that occasionally escalates into an all-out rivalry. We send each other pictures of dinner, discussing techniques, comparing fish. “Look at these gills,” one email read. His donabe acquisition had been like Yuri Gagarin reaching orbit, while I sat in Houston with a bunch of computers. By buying my own donabe I had finally matched his feat, but to even the score, I needed a moon landing.
My response was the ohitsu, the traditional container for cooked rice made of Japanese cypress. It had been a Christmas present from my sister, almost too nice to use. To fill it with rice cooked in a Zojirushi seemed like putting on airs, so it sat on the shelf, waiting for something worthy, something like donabe-cooked rice. In tandem the two produced the perfect vibe, the steam from the rice carrying the piney aroma of a walk in the woods, the subtle wood grain keeping the rice perfectly moist. This is gohan as it was intended to be eaten, something to fall in love with.
Short grain oryza japonica, sometimes labeled as sushi rice, is the kind commonly used in Japan, although many varieties exist. In the USA, most short grain rice is grown in California, and paddy-grown rice exported from Japan is extremely hard to find and expensive. Medium grain white rice is cheaper and a fine substitute when the rice isn’t as much on display, in curry, for instance. One of the big trends today is Haiga rice, short grain rice which has been polished less vigorously to retain the nutritious germ. Brown rice remains a controversial matter; while gaining popularity with younger Japanese, the older generations tend to see it as crude peasant food. I leave that for you to decide.
Japanese use a different system of measurement for rice, the gou, a cup of 180 milliliters or about 150 grams, a rough measurement for the appetite of an adult in the days when rice was the main course. Confusingly, gou is often translated as cup. These days I usually prepare about half a cup (gou) per person.
Place the desired quantity of rice in a colander and run water over it, stirring your hands through it gently for a minute or two. Let it drain for 20-30 minutes after.
For short grain rice, a ratio of one part rice to one part water is standard, although slightly more water can be added if the rice isn’t new crop. With the Kamado-san donabe, the rice cooks on medium high heat until steam begins to come out of the small hole in the lid. When the steam starts, set a timer for 2 minutes and when that is up, turn off the burner and let it sit for 20 minutes. Then fluff the rice with a wooden rice paddle and either transfer it to an ohitsu or keep it covered in the rice cooker.