Chef Ange Branca doesn’t hesitate in telling me: “You don’t know how to cook rice.”
I am silent with alarm. I come from two rice-based cultures: Hong Kong and Hawaii. I rely on my fleet of Zojirushi rice cookers at home and at my chef residencies. These make perfect steamed rice and sing me a robotic lullaby to tell me when the rice is done cooking and that it is flipping from ‘cook’ to ‘warm’. In my Chinese-speaking brain, cooked rice – ‘fan’ is a totally different beast than uncooked rice – ‘mi’. They occupy separate realms, so they have dedicated, distinct names. Rice is the centrepiece of every meal for me, and all other dishes are mere accoutrements. I covet rice. I transform day-old rice into congee and even hoard the water from rinsing the grains to splash onto my face as the ultimate face toner (this really works, by the way. It tightens the pores.)
“But you don’t make rice on the stovetop or over fire,” Branca points out. She’s right. I don’t. I rely on a machine. Commence my re-education in rice, specifically Branca’s kampong variety, which is the perfect fluffy coconut rice, infused with pandan, galangal and the aromas of banana leaves and bamboo.
To transform grains of jasmine rice into the fluffy, creamy, aromatic wonder that is nasi lemak, it must be steamed. “Nasi means rice and lemak means cream in Malay,” Branca explains. She introduced kampong or Malaysian village cuisine to Philadelphians. Her now-closed restaurant Sate Kampar was a South Philly neighbourhood gem that was nominated for a James Beard Foundation award. In 2020, Branca turned her focus from serving the food of her native Malaysia to helping others achieve their dreams as food entrepreneurs through her platform, Kampar Kitchen. She has continued to serve some of her most loved dishes via subscription. Branca also teams up with many of Philadelphia’s best chefs to serve collaborative dinners.