I was going to wash the rice for dinner myself, but my house guest, a talented young Japanese chef stepped in to do it. When I worked beside him for a month last year in Tokyo, I was awestruck by how sensitive he was to the foods he cooked. I was reminded about that again as I watched him wash rice.
He added the rice to a large mixing bowl and filled it with water. He gently sloshed the water around and carefully poured out the now milky colored. He added more water and did the same thing again. And again. And again. All the while he never actually touched the rice. Now he added water to the bowl and began lightly caressing the rice with the tips of his fingers, barely touching it. "The most important thing is not to break the grains of rice," he said. My friend drained the water and repeated this process another five times until the water was almost clear. Then he picked out a raw grain of rice, lifted it to his mouth and bit into it. I did the same. It tasted like, well, a raw grain of rice. What was he doing? "I'm checking if the grain feels polished and smooth," he answered. Oh. This was way beyond my toothy ken. He again filled the bowl with water but this time let the rice soak in it. For about 20 minutes, he told me.
We were working on something else in the kitchen and I noticed him lift some grains of rice out of the water, feel them with his fingertips and inspect them closely. What was he looking at? Checking if the rice was ready to be drained, he answered. I looked at some rice grains myself. They were pearly white with a few translucent flecks. "They need more time," he said. How did he know? About 5 minutes later he drained the rice. Now the each grain was entirely milky white, the translucence gone. He placed the rice in a colander and let it rest.
"Rice is difficult," the young chef explained. "Every cook has a different way to prepare it."
Rice is the most fundamental food in Japanese cuisine. So fundamental, the word for it, gohan, also means the meal itself. What struck me watching the chef was how even the act of washing it could be so subtle and deep and revealing. Such a humble task, yet one, at least in his hands, offering such a profound window into the cuisine. I know the rice gods were smiling.