In Praise of the Japanese Rice Pot…

In the summer, we often spend weekends at the cottage with friends. In the country, the normal rules do not apply, and so there are innumerable cocktails, a plethora of red meats, and what can only be described as a revolting amount of potato chips. Though not officially in competition, I consider myself the reigning champion of deep-friend starch consumption, devouring at least a family-sized bag or two of Miss Vickie’s on each weekend jaunt. Now this is nothing to be proud of, but as the experts say, the first step is acknowledging I have a problem. The second step is to stop eating so many frackin’ chips.

During the week, common sense attempts to prevail as we try to right the balance by reverting to a diet consisting primarily of grains and plants. We call these omnivorous delights bowls of health, and we eat them with great relish, for though they taste as good as they look and they make us feel fantastic, like we are really taking care of ourselves.

In the mornings, we eat granola with fruits and nuts and yogurt, and at night, a comparable bowl of brown rice and nuts and greens. But there is so much chopping required, and in the summer, when it is hot, or in the fall, when there is too much marking to do, or in the winter, when all you really want to do is make yourself a toddy and crawl into the tub, chopping can make you almost want to stick a Kraft Dinner Cup into the microwave and call it a day.

So imagine my delight when a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a recipe for a Japanese Rice Pot with five vegetables and a mix of 15 grains that demands almost no prep, uses one single pot, and requires almost no clean-up.

Now, despite my passion for the miraculous potato, I have long considered myself a bit of an aficionado when it comes to grains. But I had no idea that there even were 15 possible grains to choose from. The challenge is how to actually get one’s hands on them. Apparently, if the New York Times article is to be believed, the 15-grain mix is called jugokokumai, and can be bought on-line, or presumably found at Japanese grocery stores (though I have yet to go looking for it). The reason is this, you can make a wonderfully nutritious and delicious rice pot with regular old short-grained brown rice, or any version of rice and grains that you want to throw together.

As the name of the recipe makes clear, there are only five main ingredients in addition to the rice: carrots, burdock, seaweed, shiitake and edamame. The water is scented with just a hint of soy, a dash of mirin, and a glance in the direction of the sake bottle. I made it once, though sadly without the burdock, and it was delicious. To be honest, I will probably never make the effort to seek out this missing ingredient, as it grew wild and hideous in my front yard for five years, killing off my more delicate and graceful plants and causing me no end of annoyance as its burrs clung to my clothes and gloves when I tried to do battle with it. Basically, I have a grudge against burdock, and it will take more than a suggestion of its calming powers to add it to this, my newly-beloved dish.

The second time I made it, I got a little bit creative, adding some thinly-sliced cabbage and red pepper, but tonight, I really threw caution to the wind and went for it. Now, what is celebrated in this dish is its meditative properties – as opposed to its strong and vibrant flavours – so my decision to add a little garlic and ginger is probably a little counter-productive in that regard. That said, it brought things to a new level taste-wise, and health-wise, well… enough said.

What you do is this:

Put three cups of water in a pot, and then take 1/4 cup out. Fill that 1/4 cup with a mix of soy sauce, mirin, and some kind of booze, and dump it back into the pot.

Add some dried, sliced shiitake and bring the lot to a boil. While the water is heating up, julienne or slice some carrots and some ginger, and do what you like with a clove of garlic: grate it, slice it, mash it up.

Make sure you have some dried seaweed handy and some frozen edamame, and then stand by.

When the water boils, add 1 and a 1/2 cups of rice and/or grains and return to a boil. Then in an orderly fashion, lay the edamame, seawood and vegetables on the surface of the rice in a circle, put the lid on and turn the heat down to simmer.

Check in from time to time, and when the grains are to your liking and the water is absorbed, give it a stir and fill your bowls.

Again, though this is probably a blasphemous suggestion, I added a little sriracha to the dish tonight because I like a little spice. But regardless of your inclination, the fact remains: it’s the quintessential bowl of health.

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