A generations-old kitchen task becomes a meditation.
Credit: Photo: Jennifer Causey

My mother taught me, at the age before memory, how to wash the rice. I would stand at her elbow, as she had stood at her mother’s, watching an ivory arc of grains cataract into the pot. She would cover the rice with cold water, and I loved watching the water bloom with starch as the grains swished through her fingers. She’d pour off the cloudy water, refill, and repeat, until it ran mostly clear.

My mother is sansei, third-generation, born to nisei parents during World War II. They did not teach her Japanese; they passed down food customs instead. Mom married my father, a Kansas man, and learned to cook pot roasts and potatoes. But every day we had rice.

Gohan, the Japanese word for cooked rice, is also the word for “meal.” It is not a side dish. In Japan, it is the centerpiece, three times a day. It has rules: Never pour soy sauce on rice (that’s insulting). Never leave chopsticks protruding from it (a funeral rite). And finish every grain (unless you want seconds).

Credit: Courtesy of Kim Cross

Like most Asians I know, I cannot cook rice without a rice cooker. My Zojirushi, the Cadillac, has 10 settings and a timer, and it plays a little tune when the rice is starting and another song when it’s done. Nothing but rice and water go in it. Ever. Once, in my twenties, a boyfriend threatened its sanctity with a bouillon cube. “This is not going to work,” I thought, about the relationship and the rice. Luckily, my future husband learned, and never did it again.

When I was little and sick, my mother would feed me “tea on rice.” A peasant dish, O-chazuke rejuvenates cold, stale rice by drowning it in hot green tea. The warmth and clean flavor settle the stomach, especially when served with tsukemono, a variety of Japanese pickles. My favorite is beni-shoga, a salty pickled ginger colored with red shiso leaves (perilla). I still crave this when I’m sick.

Credit: Courtesy of Kim Cross

For mom, washing rice is an ordinary task, but for me it’s a meditation. It reminds me of touching wet sand at the beach, in the shallows, between waves. The sound is soothing. The process, spare. Cleansed of polishing agent, the grains swell and shine, like tiny seed pearls. Cooked, the flavor is cleaner, the fragrance sweeter. Fluffed and steaming in a bowl, the result is sacred and beautiful.

Measure 3 cups[1] Japanese short-grain white rice (Nishiki is my favorite) into the pot of a large rice cooker. Cover with several inches of cold water, and agitate the grains until the water is opaque. Pour out the cloudy water; repeat until water runs mostly clear (3 to 4 times). Add water to level indicated in rice pot (or use the old-fashioned method, placing the tip of your thumb on top of the rice, then adding water to the first knuckle). Cook according to manufacturer’s instructions.[2]

In a teapot with a removable strainer, measure 1 teaspoon of loose sen-cha[3] for each cup of water. Fill a kettle with filtered or distilled water, bring to a boil, and let stand 60 seconds. (Boiling water can scald the tea.) Steep for 90 seconds (the longer you steep, the more bitter the tea). Remove strainer. Fill a bowl half-full with steamed rice, and fill the rest of the bowl with tea. Eat with a spoon, like soup, and serve with a variety of tsukemono (pickles)[4] for a punch of flavor. For a slightly more substantial meal, add a slice of chicken breast or leftover fish, topped with a splash of soy sauce.

[1] For some reason, it’s hard to cook less than 3 cups of rice with good results. Most rice cookers made in Japan are sold with a Japanese-sized measuring cup (about two-thirds to three-fourths the size of a U.S. cup) that corresponds with the markings for water levels etched in the pot.

[2] If you don’t have a rice cooker, you can make the rice on the stovetop in a large saucepan. Start with 2 (U.S.) cups of rice. Bring rinsed rice and 3 (U.S.) cups water to a boil; cover, reduce heat, and simmer 12 minutes. Remove from heat; let stand, covered, 10 minutes.

[3] Quality loose green tea produces best results, and it need not be expensive. I prefer loose-leaf sen-cha from an Asian market (my everyday bag of Ito-en costs less than $5). When traveling, my go-to is Costco’s house brand, Kirkland Signature—contains a bit of powdered matcha for depth.

[4] Tsukemono guide: beni-shoga (red ginger): salty and vinegary; rakkyo (baby scallions): sweet-tart; ume-boshi (tiny plums): puckeringly salty and sour; takuan (daikon radish): mildly salty and sour