The Little Nabé That Could

My rice cooker died of old age last year. I got it secondhand ten years ago from a Japanese guy who was probably given it by his mother when she bought a new one of her own some time before that. The timers didn’t work and the digital clock, which couldn’t be reset, displayed in the dark of the night kitchen the correct time for, perhaps, Bucharest. It was big enough to hold the day’s meals for a Japanese family, but the measly cup of brown rice I threw in it now and then ended up, in the end, being chewy or mushy, although I used the same measures of rice and water every time. Desperate last summer to get rid of some unwanted furniture (which you have to pay a nominal sum for the city furniture/household appliance disposal dudes to haul away), I threw out four things:a small defunct clothes dryer (which was stolen not two hours later by someone who was probably unpleasantly surprised); a TV stand/VCR-DVD cabinet (which survived until the next morning); another, shabbier TV stand (don’t ask; I waited to see if anyone would take it before calling the collectors: nobody took it, but after the first rain it more or less fell apart and the regular garbagemen took away the pieces); and the lowly rice cooker – the only thing I actually had to pay (300 yen) to have carted away. Could have been worse.

So for six months or so, I was cookerless. Since I wasn’t raised to need rice with every meal (in fact, the Japanese word for cooked rice – gohan – and the casual word for meal –meshi – are different readings of the same character, 飯) , that wasn’t a problem at first. Besides, I eat quite enough of it when I eat out. There were times, however, when I’d have a craving for one dish or another, and realize I didn’t have the wherewithal to cook the required rice (I say rice, but at home, I tend to eat brown rice, or genmai – 玄米). I had no idea how to cook real rice in a pot. I grew up in a meat/fish-potato-two veg household (all very tasty), and rice, when used at all, tended to go into soups or with sauces (or rice pudding) and was of the Uncle Ben’s/Minute Rice variety (I’m proud to say, however, that I did convert my parents to basmati some years ago). I only really began eating rice in earnest in Japan, but even then, not every day. I inherited the rice cooker, and never gave the production of it another thought until it faltered and died. Wouldn’t it be hard to cook? Isn’t that why God and Toshiba made rice cookers?

I started pricing rice cookers (suihanki,炊飯器) at the big-box appliance stores in Namba. Now, Japanese rice cookers are brilliant things, and since my old one was manufactured, they’ve become more compact and convenient to use. Did I want to throw out 90 bucks or more, though, for an appliance I wouldn’t use every day? I couldn’t decide (God knows, I’ve wasted more on things I’ve used less over the years, but I’ve been trying to break myself of that wicked habit and utility is my new mantra). I pondered this one day while eating lunch in class with some of my students. They noticed my rice-free meal and the subject came up.  Several could not understand how I’d survived as long as I had without an immediate source of cooked rice within reach 24/7, but one woman, from Fukuoka, assured me that all I needed was a 100-yen donabe. Nabe (鍋) means cooking pot, in particular a traditional earthenware hotpot. Like casserole, the word nabe can refer to the pot itself or the meal cooked in it. To avoid abiguity – there’s enough of that in Japanese – one says donabe ( ‘earthen pot’, 土鍋), although with my pronunciation I tend to sound like Homer Simpson when I do.

The next day, the woman from Fukuoka gave me a printout from a Japanese cooking site on how to make good rice in a cheap clay pot (bought at the equivalent of The Dollar Store) without having it (and the pot) ending up all over your stove. I was dubious about my chances. I was especially dubious because the printed-out instructions, although illustrated, were completely in Japanese. Well, she’d gone to so much effort tht I felt obliged to at least try. So try I did.

First I had to buy the donabe. I already owned one, but it’s party-sized – great for cooking various nabes and oden in the winter, but I didn’t trust myself to adjust the recipe to its size. I went to the 100-yen shop in OCAT (another failed, half-empty monolith built by the Osaka government in the 90s), near Namba station and, lo and behold, $1 hotpots (incidentally, for all the periodic complaining about China in the Japanese media, most ordinary Japanese couldn’t manage without these shops, which feature cheap, mostly Chinese-made household goods).

The results were not unimpressive. I cheated a bit in mid-cooking, by finding a good recipe in English for brown rice. Of course, I was terrified that the rice would either boil over or dry up and burn and so I stood over it like a stage mother until I sensed it was ready, listening for just the right time when the sound of  bubbling water stopped. I then let it sit for half an hour, as per deciphered instructions (it was at this point that I found the English instructions and realized I was doing things correctly and needn’t have worried). The resulting pot of brown rice was light and fluffy and not at all sticky; if this were to happen to white rice, I think a Japanese cook would deem it a failure, because sticky short-grain rice is the ideal in Japanese cookery. I’m less fussy: it tasted great.

Here is what I made with it:

Mediterranean Yakimeshi (adapted from the Mediterranean Herbed Rice recipe in my well-worn copy of Lorna Sass’ Complete Vegetarian Kitchen, a cookbook I heartily recommend even though it’s so earnestly vegan that it doesn’t have any pictures).

Sauté a leek or large onion in a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan. When the leek/onion is soft, stir in 1 tsp sage (the original recipe calls for summer savoury; good luck finding that in Japan), 3/4 tsp dried rosemary, 1/2 tsp of dried oregano (actually, crazy-go-nuts with the herbs, if you like), and a drained can of chick peas (I didn’t happen to have any dried ones at hand; the original calls for 3/4 cup of dried chick peas, soaked and cooked). Take your 100 yen nabe-cooked brown rice (this 100-yen nabe method yields about 2.5 cups of rice) and add it to the mixture. Reduce the heat a bit. When it’s warmed through, add 1/3 cup of chopped, oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes (and/or pitted olives; the original recipe specifies oil-cured black olives, but I’ve used chopped, canned green ones in the past with no regrets). Good as a main dish, on the side, or warmed up for lunch.

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5 Responses to The Little Nabé That Could

  1. Orchid64 says:

    Cooking rice in a regular metal cooking pot is really easy. In fact, it’s so easy that I never understand why people have rice cookers. Though there may be special considerations for brown rice (I doubt it), the basic procedure is:

    1. Wash and soak the rice until the grains have fully absorbed the water (generally they turn from translucent to opaque); Drain off the soaking water.

    2. Put the rice in a pot with a well-fitting lid and add twice as much water as rice. (1 cup of rice, 2 cups of water)

    3. Heat to a low boil without the lid. Cover with the lid. Cook for 20 minutes. Do not stir or touch the lid.

    4. Turn off the heat and allow to sit with the lid on for 20 more minutes.

    Fluff and eat.

    I’ve done this many times and the rice is always perfect as long as you don’t mess up and forget to watch it while it’s going from being cold to a low boil (that’s about the only part you can screw up). You’ve got one pot to clean (and it’s not hard as long as you don’t let it dry out). Short of paying attention to the time twice, this is little more effort than a rice cooker and doesn’t require a special pot.

  2. Kelly says:

    This strikes a cord with me. When I first married Yasu we were living in a rental semi-detached house with two rooms and we didn’t own a rice cooker. Yasu being Japanese demanded rice with every meal though so I ended up learning how to cook rice in a metal pot with a clear lid. It takes roughly 20 mins and you just put the rice in the pot with enough water and put it on medium. At about 10 minutes it starts boiling and the whole pot fills with bubbles and they start coming out the hole in the lid. When all the bubbles have finished you then turn it off and leave it 15 minutes. I graduated to a nabe pot after that for cooking a bigger amount. I could go back to that way easily as I find the rice cooker too fiddly, as in, you have to keep cleaning the lid and the inside bowl and all the attachments like the water filter on the outside.

    Well, we used to rent out one of the rooms to Japanese travellers and after they settled in they had a huge panic because we didn’t have a rice cooker. I taught quite a few of them how to make rice in a pot. I bet they never thought they would get taught how to make rice by a ‘gaijin’!

    When we bought our first rice cooker I had quite a few problems because Yasu insisted I not wash the rice in the bowl it was being cooked in because the rice would scratch, so I had to wash the rice in a separate bowl then tip it in. Though quite a few times I actually poured the rice and the water into the rice cooker when the bowl wasn’t in it and it all went down into the motor. It totally stuffed up the rice cooker and we had to buy a new one. Yasu didn’t get what was so hard, but remembering to put all the pieces in and do all the fiddly stuff like washing rice, that was totally foreign to me as I never ate r ice before I got married.

    I started off my rice-cooker times with alot of yelling and head-shaking and “unbelievable”s from Yasu about the stupid rice cooker, but gradually over the years I’ve gotten used to it.

    I definitely don’t think you need a rice cooker to make good rice. I really liked it cooked in the nabe and I would love to return to that style. 🙂

  3. Melody says:

    I got my fill of rice dining out and eating at friends’ houses while living in Japan, but bought a rice cooker not long after our return to the states. It’s a Zojirushi and I love it. I do basmati, brown and best of all, steel cut oats that are perfectly cooked and waiting for us in the morning. I ended up using it much more than I thought I would, but there’s no way I could ever get used to eating white rice every single meal. Just not going to happen.

  4. Sean says:

    I just stumbled upon this today. I still have the rice cooker I bought in Osaka. It must be almost 20 years old. YIKES.

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