It always gives me great comfort to know that when I cannot think of what to make for dinner, I can always rely on rice and everything else will eventually fall into place. Many Japanese plan their daily menu this way -- around a bowl of rice. It is not a surprise that gohan, the Japanese word for "rice," also means "meal."
One of my favorite dishes that makes rice a satisfying centerpiece is maze-gohan -- a one-pot rice dish made with a variety of seafood, meat and vegetables and cooked in a clay pot called a donabe.
My mother had a special love affair with donabe pots. Whenever we went on excursions, she bought us kamameshi -- donabe bento lunches that you could buy at the train stations throughout Japan. They were single-serving clay pots that contained rice with mixtures of meat, seafood and vegetables that varied from place to place. It was fun to eat the warm rice straight out of the cooking vessel in the moving train.
At the end of the journey, Mother would go around to collect the empty donabe pots, including some that had been left in the train by other passengers. My father always grunted in disapproval, but she couldn't stand the idea of letting those artisanal pots go to waste. When we got home, Mother reused them to make rice and invited guests who were impressed to be served kamameshi at home. She often scorched the rice at the bottom of the donabe, but that was actually the best part. The chewy crust tasted like a rice cracker.
My grandmother also made rice in a clay donabe pot. During the ginkgo nut season, we would walk to the grounds of the Hachiman shrine in Kamakura and gather the fallen nuts of the 1,000-year-old ginkgo tree. Grandmother believed that ginkgo nuts strengthened your memory.
She combined the nuts with the rice and put the donabe on top of the hot wood-burning stove. Soon, we could hear the water in the donabe hissing and the firewood crackling. The two of us sat by the warm stove while she told me a story or two and the ginkgo nut rice cooked.
The most delightful part was the presentation: Grandmother would set the hot donabe in the middle of the table and lift the heavy lid. Right before my eyes, the hot steam would rise straight up and release a grassy perfume and the bright yellow ginkgo nut rice would appear out of the mist. It was breathtakingly beautiful. The ginkgo nuts tasted slightly bitter, but I always asked for seconds.
I use my donabe pot often as well. The other day, I found some gorgeous wild scallops at the fish market. I cooked them with the rice, seasoning it with sake, soy sauce and roasted sesame oil. On a whim, I threw in some goji berries, which not only gave the rice a nice red tint but also enhanced the natural sweetness of the scallops and rice.
Make it spicy
Garnishes and spices -- yakumi in Japanese -- play an important role in most dishes, including rice. They clear the palate and aid in digestion (the Chinese characters for yakumi mean "medicinal flavors"). I spiced up the scallop rice with a pinch of cracked red pepper, shichimi pepper and roasted sesame seeds and garnished it with chopped chives and thin slices of fragrant yuzu.
There is an abundance of mushrooms around, and you can mix and match the varieties. To make three-mushroom rice, kinoko no maze-gohan, you can use maitake, shiitake and shimeji mushrooms, which are always available at Japanese markets, but go see what the mushroom man at the farmers market has to offer and be adventurous. For the yakumi, try sliced shiso leaves, sliced yuzu or lemon rind and sprinkle some finely cut nori seaweed that has a happy confetti-like effect.
You can also mix and match rice varieties. Use white as the base and mix in brown rice to add nutrients, and sweet rice for more texture and shine. Rice with chicken and dandelion greens -- soboro no gohan -- is a popular Japanese rice dish made with ground chicken. You can make it with plain white rice or mix in brown rice. Season the meat with sesame oil, soy sauce, mirin, sake, sugar and some grated ginger to give it spice. Cook the rice separately from the meat but serve them together in the same bowl. Add chopped dandelions or other greens, such as edible chrysanthemum leaves (shungiku) for a subtle bitter yakumi flavor.
Worth the price
I prefer to cook rice in a double-lidded donabe pot because the double lid acts like a pressure cooker and makes rice that is moist and nutty in texture. These artisanal pots are expensive. But if, like me, you are serious about rice, it's one of the best kitchen pots you could ever own. You can also use a single-lidded donabe clay pot or an electric rice cooker.
The one that requires the most attention is the single-lidded donabe, which is thinner and lighter than a double-lidded rice cooker. You need to adjust the heat a couple of times during the cooking process to prevent the rice from scorching. When the rice reaches the boiling point, turn the heat down to medium-low and cook for an additional 8 to 10 minutes with the lid on. Then remove the pot from the heat and let the rice steam with the lid on for 15 to 20 minutes more. For the electric rice cooker, follow the manufacturer's instructions.
No matter which pot you use, what you strive for is a rice grain that is firm, with each kernel separate and nutty. The Japanese describe this ideal characteristic as kome ga tatsu -- "rice that stands." It is the texture you want with each bite.
It may take a couple of practices to get the rice to cook in a donabe just right. If you scorch the rice a little, don't worry. You can eat the crust. It's delicious. Once you get the knack of it, you will enjoy planning menus around rice and making it the centerpiece of your meal, which is where rice likes to be.