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Rice to Meet You
Trying to find a grain of truth in rice recipes
Sometimes (often) I find mistakes in the newsletter the minute I send it out. When I do, I edit it, so the best way to read the most updated version of the newsletter is by clicking this link. Kind of defeats the purpose of a newsletter, I know. I’m trying!
During lockdown in New Zealand, I started asking my mom for some of her recipes. Like many Chinese home cooks, writing down a recipe with precise measurements is simply not how she cooks, so she sent me videos instead, most of which I ended up sharing on Instagram.
I like to think I have at least a basic idea of cooking – my foundational knowledge comes primarily from Australian cookbooks of the early 2000s, especially The Cook’s Companion by Stephanie Alexander, which remains my favourite reference till this day, but I’ve never bought a Chinese cookbook. With Cantonese recipes, for a long time, I just kind of free-styled, recalling proportions and techniques from watching my mom or grandma cook, or when I really needed help, asked my mom. But this meant that I never really learned Cantonese cooking the way I did non-Cantonese food – through reading a ton of background and theory.
Recently this came to light while trying to annotate some of my mom’s videos for Instagram. I didn’t really understand why some things were done – it was just the way it was. One of the techniques that piqued my interest was in her claypot rice recipe, where she tempers the rice in the claypot with some oil before adding water. I’d never cooked Chinese rice that way before, but it’s a step that will be familiar to those who’ve read risotto and pilaf recipes (it’s usually known as “toasting” in these contexts, but I prefer “temper”). Most Chinese rice cooking is via the absorption method – raw rice and water go into a pan or rice cooker at the same time – at least that’s the case for plain rice, and I assumed that claypot rice was just a variation on that, with a crispy bottom made by heating the base of the pot a bit longer. And indeed, you can make claypot rice that way, so this tempering method was new to me.
Why do we temper/toast rice anyway? I looked through most of the references – “bibles” – I have on my bookshelf, such as Larousse Gastronomique, Harold McGee’s On Food & Cooking, China by Chan Kei-lum and Diora Fong Hui-lan, and not a single one had a scientific answer. The closest thing I found was an old article on Serious Eats by the trusty Kenji Lopez-Alt, who did a side-by-side comparison on toasting vs. no toasting for risotto, but even he breezes past the matter after declaring that it’s for “great nutty, toasty flavor [sic]”. My mom believes that tempering the grains means they’re coated in oil and won’t stick together, creating a better crust at the bottom of the claypot, which I think is plausible too, although I’ve yet to try it side-by-side like Kenji did.
Then I started digging through Google scholar to see if I could find anything about it in science journals. I couldn’t find much on toasting grains specifically, but found some articles about the science of rice starches, such as this one, which suggests that indica rice (which is what Thai rice, commonly used in Hong Kong, is) needs higher temperatures to gelatinise. Gelatinisation makes starches easier for our bodies to digest, so I wonder if applying high heat first is a way of ensuring gelatinisation occurs in the harder-to-digest indica grains. Also, combining heated starch with fat before water makes this thing called a lipid-amylose complex that doesn’t let the starch break down in water as much, thereby (I assume) keeping the grains more intact (help me, chemistry people!). Kenji’s article shows that toasting rice first makes for a less creamy risotto – while this isn’t good news for risotto, it is for claypot rice, where you don’t want the grains to clump together in a stodgy mess.
Tangent: while trawling through journals for rice articles, I read about the Indian technique of sand roasting rice to make muri (puffed rice – think: Rice Krispies), so I looked up sand roasting on Youtube and found this cool video. Then I realised roasted chestnuts in Hong Kong are done through sand roasting too, albeit with rougher, gravelly sand. So cool!
Back to claypot rice. Falling down this rabbit hole made me realise how little we know about the science of Chinese cooking techniques. This made me think about where this newsletter is going, and if I were to create a paid subscription version of it, that it would likely feature nerdy Chinese cooking science, where I could invest some time in research and interviews. So just putting it out there – let me know if you’re interested? Leave a comment below or shoot me a DM at @e_ting.
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What I wrote
After ranting about the greenwashing of single-use “biodegradable” food containers on Instagram, Hong Kong Tatler Dining graciously commissioned me to write a more coherent version of my thoughts and findings.
What I ate and drank
I left my house (again!) to go to another person’s house, where we drank not one, but two wines from Waipara Valley, North Canterbury, New Zealand. I suspect you’ll be hearing about this region a lot more in the future, if you haven’t already. One of NZ’s best known wineries, Pegasus Bay, has been there forever, but recently it’s emerged as a bit of an up-and-coming hub for natural winemaking. We drank a Müller Thurgau pét-nat by The Hermit Ram, which was a delicious floral, tropical yogurt shake, and a Pinot (Noir) Nouveau from Ekleipsis – the partial carbonic maceration gave it a similar “milky” body to the Hermit Ram, and it had plenty of juicy cherries and a bit of spice, which was perfect with our Sun Kwai Heung char siu (oh my, so good).
And I went to a restaurant! (Sorry about all the exclamation marks, but eating out is so rare these days, I can’t help but be excited). Due to pure good fortune, I was offered spare seats at the now-unbookable-before-September Belon for lunch today. (This newsletter is late because of this meal, #sorrynotsorry). As most gluttons in Asia now know, chef Daniel Calvert is leaving Hong Kong for Tokyo in a couple weeks, and this was my last chance (for a while) to eat his mindblowingly perfect food. I haven’t digested the meal yet, both mentally and physically, so I don’t have anything to say that I haven’t already said. “Perfect” really is the only word for it – top-notch ingredients with their full potential coaxed out of them, and never a hair out of place. While I’m still drunk* on this meal, allow me to say something so basic that I wouldn’t dare say when sober: “good food good mood 😍😍😍” . This is literally how I feel right now.
*I’m not actually “drunk”, I wouldn’t do that to you, dear reader! We only had a drop of sparkling, and that’s not a euphemism.