Vittles 6.15 - Rice Cookers

Two Cars In Every Garage and a Rice Cooker in Every House, by The Picky Glutton

During the early Renaissance, the production of art emerged from the co-operative guild system and the idea of the artist was born, a singular genius (often a man) who was solely responsible for a work of art, to the extent they would sign it with their own name. I wonder when the Renaissance period for bakers was? Cities have always had bakers guilds (London’s Worshipful Company of Bakers is the second oldest in the city) but at some point individual bakers — like chefs — started to get a name for themselves. Soon you weren’t just getting bread but Lionel Poilâne’s bread; or not just St. John’s bread but Dan Lepard’s bread, or Justin Gellatly’s. There’s something romantic about the baker that doesn’t really exist for any other product: the way the dough is caressed, the shaping and the firing of the bread which is so reminiscent of a pot being put in a kiln, and then the transformation process. No wonder that after a brief boom, the popularity of the bread machine fell of a cliff. Who now wants automated bread when the most technologically savvy people in the world are laboriously making sourdough.

The bread machine, like most technological advances in the kitchen over the last few decades, came from Asia — specifically Japan. It ties into a wider technological optimism that swept East Asia in the 80’s and 90’s and inadvertently decimated the traditional Japanese craft industry, which is now only bouncing back through a renewed interest from the West in handmade craft products. This dichotomy at the heart of Japanese culture perhaps explains the simultaneous existence of the most sophisticated rice making in the world (see Jiro Dreams of Sushi for extreme rice nerdery) and the invention of the rice cooker.

As The Picky Glutton explains in today’s newsletter, the rice cooker differs from the bread machine in one very important aspect. While bread machines do not make amazing bread, rice cookers make ordinary rice better and more consistently than most people do. That perhaps sits uneasily with our distrust of automation and the tendency to believe that there is something spiritual in our food that the human touch imbues it with. So is more automation in cooking the answer? The rice cooker was invented to save time, yet Japan still has some of the longest working hours in the world. Many Marxist theories have posited that automation can free us, but as David Harvey says here:

“Every time a new wave of technology comes along, it does indeed seem to suggest some beautiful new future that can be constructed out of it…the answer is, ‘well, it could be’ but it’s not going to be because the capitalist social relations are dominant… they are going to make sure that these new technologies get used to squeeze value out of labor.”

Fully automated luxury rice cookers alone will not save us, but still, I defy you not to buy one after today’s newsletter. In the kitchen there are things worth spending time on and keeping an eye on rice isn’t one of them. The time you save does add up — just make sure you spend it on something you actually want to do.

Two Cars In Every Garage and a Rice Cooker in Every House, by The Picky Glutton

The scene is 1960s Hong Kong. The characters of In The Mood For Love — Wong Kar Wai’s atmospheric romantic drama — have clustered excitedly together. They are cooing animatedly over the latest hi-tech device from Japan, a transformative invention that is still found in almost every East Asian household to this day. It’s an electric rice cooker.

The rice cooker in In The Mood For Love is more than just a period detail - it helps set the stage for everything that follows. Tony Leung’s character purchases one for his wife, freeing her from domestic drudgery so she can enter the workplace. But he subsequently suspects her of infidelity, justifying (in his mind) his lust for his similarly married neighbour, played by Maggie Cheung.

While the electric rice cooker is a ubiquitous domestic staple in East Asia, it’s not only a relative rarity in the UK but often dismissed out-of-hand over here as a curiosity or as an overcomplicated gewgaw. The Guardian’s four generalist articles on the subject of how to cook rice, published between 2011 and 2019, neatly encapsulate this response. Three detail increasingly complex methods of making rice without a single mention of the electric rice cooker at all. The fourth — a strange report on the launch of a new model from a Chinese company — is largely oblivious to their multifaceted appeal. Its penultimate sentence asks rhetorically ‘I wonder who would ever buy one, in real life’, blithely ignoring the hundreds of millions of east Asian households that already have. 

The continued niche status of rice cookers in the UK is perhaps indicative of how we value our free time and the very concept of labour itself. The universal appeal of rice cookers in Asia - that they elegantly automate an otherwise tediously manual and fiddly task - is one that seems out of place in our kitchens, especially given the popular and almost totemic belief that lockdown was the perfect opportunity to dedicate hours to mastering complex recipes and becoming expert home cooks. 

For example, many people may have spent lockdown trying to hone their rice making skills. To do this you need to figure out how much water to add to a pot for the amount of rice that you are cooking, either by weighing the rice and water or by deploying the knuckle method (once the dry rice is in the pan, place your fingertip on top of the rice and add water until it reaches your first knuckle). You bring the pot to boil, stir briefly and then simmer on a low heat until the rice is – through a combination of eyeballing and taste testing - evenly cooked through. Except for some varieties of rice, where other methods may inexplicably work better. This illustrates the overarching problem with cooking rice in a saucepan. For most home cooks, it’s so inconsistent that it’s almost literally pot luck. It requires constant vigilance to achieve the best possible results and, even then, that’s no guarantee.

In contrast, electric rice cookers simply consist of a removable rice bowl that fits inside a pot at the bottom of which is a heating element. For every one portion of rice you’re cooking, determined by a handily included measuring cup, you add water up to the engraved indicator on the inside of the bowl. Close the lid of the pot, hit the ‘cook’ button and the heating element boils the water. This is common to all electric rice cookers, which range wildly in price and features, whether it’s the cheap ones at around £100 or less, midrange units in the £100-170 ballpark or high-end models which go all the way up to £330. In general, you get what you pay for. When my trusty decade-old mid-range Zojirushi NDAQ-N18 eventually kicks the bucket, there’s zero chance that I’ll trade down to a lower-end unit.

Why? The two key differences between cheaper and pricier rice cookers: how they work and consequently how adept they are at their core functions. Cheap rice cookers will switch off as soon as boiling point has been maintained for a fixed amount of time, or once the weight of the bowl’s contents has decreased past a certain point - meaning the rice has absorbed some water and the rest has boiled away as excess steam, expelled through a vent in its lid. The real magic appears in high-end rice cookers, where the hassle-free, hands-free preparation of rice is fit for kings, presidents and your in-laws. Most of these use microchips and sensors to dynamically adjust the cooking time and the rate of temperature increase, similar to the way you would adjust the knobs on your hob when using a saucepan - except completely automatised and therefore far more reliable. 

Even more importantly, while cheap models struggle to keep rice warm and safely edible after cooking - mangling it after a couple hours and leaving behind a misshapen mound that’s either too hard, too soft or, in the worst-case scenario, mouldy - pricier rice cookers can handle this task effortlessly. Now, the idea of keeping cooked rice warm for as long as twelve hours sounds like gimmickry, but it is actually crucial. From topping up plates during those lazy, hazy, multi-course dinner parties we can no longer have, to ensuring you have enough rice prepped and ready to go for both your temperamental child and yourself at the drop of a hat in between bouts of homeschooling and working from home, this function saves an extraordinary amount of labour time.

The result is perfectly soft rice, from short-grained koshihikari that clump together in fluffy tufts to more familiar varieties such as long-grained basmati, which emerges fully separated. The very best rice cookers produce rice cooked evenly, with no claggy, soggy and undercooked bits, and no burnt, overcooked scabs, as you’d often find clinging to the bottom of a student’s saucepan. This combination of high-quality cooking and the avoidance of wastage is accomplished reliably, time after time, with no manual intervention needed - such as stirring or hawk-eyed observation - freeing up your time and hob space for the preparation of other dishes. The pricier models, especially from Japanese brands such as Zojirushi and Tiger, also have extra cooking modes for cooking all sorts of other dishes. From the expected, such as congee and risotto, to the head scratchingly unexpected such as steamed cakes (which makes sense in the context of Japanese kitchens which often lack convection ovens).

The multiple benefits of electric rice cookers makes their absence from many British kitchens all the more curious. Prosaic reasons are partially responsible, from non-existent marketing by appliance manufacturers to the fact that the average Briton consumes far less rice than, say, their Japanese counterpart (7.63kg per year compared to 54.4kg, according to figures published in 2017).

But there is perhaps another, even more ingrained reason. The actual heart of the rice cooker’s appeal is not just that it saves time but the radical idea that automation can produce a consistently higher quality result than manual labour. This is anathema to a principle that’s now rarely spoken about, a principle that underlies the artisanal craft cooking techniques embraced unquestioningly in recent years, that for something to have any real worth, you must have laboured or worked on it.

This idea, derived from John Locke’s labour theory of property, crops up in so many unexpected places. ‘If it isn’t hard, then it’s not worth doing’, as the saying goes. In the kitchen, the laborious act of kneading and proving dough for your own bread is done in the pursuit of better-quality loaves. Rice cookers, on the other hand, give you a better-quality end result by taking all the hard work away from you. Rice cookers have achieved what mechanised bread production has not — an alternative to hand-crafted labour that consistently and repeatedly produces a superior result. Andrew Wong, the chef and proprietor of Chinese restaurants Kym’s and the Michelin-starred A. Wong is unequivocal in his praise for this aspect of the rice cooker. “For me,” Wong explains, rice cookers “always make better rice. I personally find it a lot more difficult to make fluffy rice in a pan”.

While the characters of Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love, and indeed the non-fictional inhabitants of East Asia, have embraced this freedom from domestic drudgery, we have not. It’s as if filling a pot and pressing a button is ‘cheating’ and somehow inherently less worthwhile than the labour of babysitting a bubbling saucepan.

MiMi Aye, author of the Burmese cookbook Mandalay, describes this attitude as a form of snobbery based on an actual preference for putting effort and elbow grease into their cookery. “People in ‘foodie’ circles, in particular, can be snobbish about time-saving devices like rice cookers – you even mention on Twitter that you use a microwave, it’s as if you’re a criminal”, she said.

The Lockean valorisation of hard graft in the West ties into a Luddite techno-scepticism, one that hasn’t yet reached East Asia and its almost Victorian techno-optimism. The West’s post-Noughties techno-scepticism demands that automation prove its worth, in a way that isn’t demanded of sweat and toil – especially in the world of food and agriculture. By eschewing the automation of the rice cooker, many of us have actually unquestioningly embraced far more inefficient and inequitable means of eating our rice without having to cook it properly ourselves. Instant rice, from packets of Uncle Ben’s to microwaveable rice pots, have their place but in regular use they’re not only significantly more expensive per gram than sacks of regular rice, they also generate far more plastic waste. Takeaway rice, which ironically is often prepared in electric rice cookers, outsources the cooking – and delivery – of that rice to low-waged workers who are often from ethnic minorities and labour under unjustifiably precarious conditions.

Life, whether under lockdown or not, doesn’t always have to revolve around finding satisfaction and value in grinding gastronomic gruntwork. Sometimes, it’s not only okay but positively advantageous to let a push-button appliance grapple with all that graft for you. If you cook and eat rice with any regularity, say once a week or more, then you owe it to yourself to get a decent electric rice cooker. Not just because well-cooked rice is important, but because your time and energy are just as important too. And if it’s good enough for the kitchens of almost every East Asian restaurant in the land, then it’s good enough for you.

The Picky Glutton is a London-based restaurant reviewer whose obsessive, detailed and occasionally innuendo-laden work can be found on their website https://pickyglutton.com/ . To maintain as much impartiality and anonymity as possible, the Glutton rarely accepts freebies preferring instead to pay their own bills. 

The illustrations were done by Natasha Phang-Lee. You can find more of her work over at https://natashaphanglee.myportfolio.com/work. The Picky Glutton and Natasha were both paid for their contributions to this newsletter.

If you have been enjoying Vittles, then you can contribute to its upkeep by subscribing via Patreon https://www.patreon.com/user?u=32064286, which ensures all contributors are paid. Any donation is gratefully appreciated.