GOCHISO GOURMET: Taking the path less traveled

For most of my almost five decades here on this orb, I’ve always cooked rice one way — the old school way, in a traditional cast aluminum rice pot over a stovetop burner. The rice was never measured in a special rice cup; you always knew exactly what level of rice produced three cups of cooked rice in the small pot and what level produced five cups of cooked rice in the large pot. And never mind measuring the water, these designated rice pots always produced perfect results if, when you touched the rice line, the water level was at the first digit on your index finger (actually, for me, just below my first digit). After soaking for one hour, the rice was boiled vigorously until the cover started rattling, then lowered to simmer for 20 minutes to let the rice steam.

Why cook rice on the stovetop when electric rice cookers abound? Well, that’s the way Mom always cooked rice. In certain electric rice cookers, the final product leaves a mucilaginous brown film on the bottom of the pot. This snot-like appearance turned off Mom for good. So whatever electric rice cookers we were gifted usually found their way into the Goodwill donation bin, or packed in your college dormitory care package.

However, these traditional rice pots do have a downside. Though they are solidly made from heavy cast aluminum, the threading that secures the cover knob eventually wears out over time, leaving you with a smooth aluminum “nipple” and rendering the pot almost useless. I say almost because Mom simply used a wooden clothespin on the “nipple” to lift the cover. Replacing the pot really wasn’t an option; despite the large Asian population in Hawai‘i, no store carried a traditional rice pot. I guess once Zojirushi started producing these high-tech electric rice cookers, rice pots went the way of the dinosaur.

OLD SCHOOL VS. NEW SCHOOL — bowl of multi-grain rice. photos by Ryan Tatsumoto

So I was out of luck — until I attended graduate school in the Bay Area and found Soko Hardware in San Francisco’s Japantown. They carried the full range from three- to 10-cup traditional rice cookers. I immediately purchased a couple of pots for the family and shipped them home. Of course since Mom grew up during the war when foods were rationed, I still see her using that more than 40-year-old rice pot with the clothespin “because it still works.”

Welcome to the future

I’m not sure if my attraction to modern cooking technology is due to age or just giving in to modern technology. Maybe I’m just a cooking magpie and any shiny, new-fangled kitchen device will catch my eye, whether it’s an immersion cooker or an induction plate or a combination slow cooker/pressure cooker or a multi-bladed high-speed blender. Or maybe it’s just an induction heating, microcomputer-controlled rice cooker. What?! Giving in to an electric rice cooker? Well, for starters it’s not just any electric rice cooker but the Tiger JKC R18U 10-cup cooker. Along with 11 different rice cooking programs, it can be used as a slow cooker, and it also bakes bread! And the cooking pot is not just any pot but five layers alternating stainless steel with copper and aluminum for quick and even heat distribution. And it’s coated with a non-stick lining for easy rice removal. Add in the induction (magnetic) heating element and you have the Ferrari — no, the Lamborghini of electric rice cookers.

How does it cook?

To test its cooking abilities, I also purchased various high-end types of rice from my local Marukai market. I know I could have simply tried cooking your basic supermarket brands like Diamond G, Tsuru Mai or Kokuho, but since this was a costly purchase for the cooking device itself, that would be like purchasing a $300 belt simply to hold up $19 Levi’s. So I picked up Kirakira Koshihikari from Niigata, whole grain sprouted Koshihikari GABA rice grown in the U.S., and Gen-Ji-Mai multigrain rice (origin not stated) along with my domestic Koshihikari grown in the Golden State that I usually have on hand.

Domestic Koshihikari

OLD SCHOOL VS. NEW SCHOOL — a Tiger JKC R18U 10-cup rice cooker. photos by Ryan Tatsumoto

I normally soak my rice for one hour before cooking it on the stovetop with a usual total cook time of 25 to 30 minutes. The Tiger cooker called for a 30-minute soak time and the total cook time was about double, 60 minutes or so including the steam time. The rice looked the same after cooking but the texture was a little fluffier with the Tiger cooker. I also noticed that the texture was a little better the next day — it seemed more like cooled rice cooked that day, as the edges and exposed surfaces weren’t as dry.

Niigata Koshihikari

The flavor compared to the domestic variety was almost the same — it did seem to have a slightly sweeter quality and the cooked grains seemed to have a slightly more pearlescent shine to them. However, I doubt that most people would notice any difference between the Niigata versus domestic varieties, or for that matter, the difference between freshly cooked in a pot versus electric cooked.

GABA Sprouted Brown Rice

According to the package, germinating brown rice improves its nutrient content, including its dietary fiber, and increases its GABA level fourfold over regular brown rice and sevenfold over white rice. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric-acid) is a natural amino acid and neurotransmitter and stimulating these receptors helps to reduce anxiety and can facilitate sleep. In fact stimulating GABA receptors is exactly what medications like Ativan, Xanax and Valium do. However, increased levels of GABA in sprouted brown rice probably won’t work to the same extent as the aforementioned benzodiazepine medications.

While white rice also cooks up just as well in a traditional stovetop rice pot, the whole grain varieties are a different story. Whole grain rice requires a little longer soak, a little more water and a little longer cook time. You might be able to accomplish this on the stovetop but this is where that little microcomputer in the electric cooker shines. The brown rice had a better texture cooked in the Tiger cooker, especially the next day.

Multi-Grain Rice

The Gen-Ji-Mai was a combination of brown, jasmine, red, Calmati, long grain red, black, brown sweet and wild rice along with hulless and black barley, whole oats and rye berries. Twelve whole grains in all!

I didn’t even attempt to cook this on the stovetop as I knew it would be a failure. In the Tiger cooker, the grains were nicely cooked with a pleasing chew and were even great the next day. I know that if I tried using the stovetop, the following day it would resemble bird food more than rice.

The verdict

I decided to make my purchase because my local Marukai market had a 20 percent off sale for all in-stock regularly-priced merchandise on Jan. 2. I initially thought about purchasing the 8L Tiger thermal cooker but alas, none was in stock. I then noticed the Tiger induction cooker sitting on an adjacent shelf. The regular price was $379.99 and I knew it went on sale several times a year for $349.99. Hmm… 20 percent off $379.99 makes it $304. Several Web reviews stated it was the best electric rice cooker, and that it can even be used as a slow cooker and bread baker. And the cooking pot actually rivals the copper core All-Clad pot… which would go for at least $270. Okay, SOLD!

If all you primarily cook is white rice and don’t have much next-day leftovers, then you can save that $304 or $380 for some other purchase. If you do cook a lot of whole grain rice and have been thinking about adding a slow cooker to your kitchen implements, then the Tiger cooker may be for you even with its steep price. If all you need is a whole grain rice cooker, there are cheaper electric versions that also cook via microcomputer, but of course they won’t have that five-layer, double-copper, non-stick cooking pot. And as an added bonus, this Tiger cooker also has an “okoge” setting to brown the bottom of the rice — I haven’t tried it yet but am dying to make my own version of earthenware-cooked bibimbap. And the last time I checked, even your basic microcomputer-controlled rice cookers will set you back $150 to $200 or so, which is still pricey in my book. Though do remember that the longevity of any computer or microcomputer usually is only a month or so past its factory warranty. And the heat and moisture found in a rice cooker doesn’t help matters any. But a cast aluminum old school rice pot does last forever… if you also have a wooden clothespin.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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