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The Next Course: Rice Beyond the Rice Cooker

20 May, 2022
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Coconut rice should be soft in the middle, but still have a bite. This can be achieved in different ways, Branca says. “Making rice in a clay pot set over fire is also a wonderful method, that cooks the rice very evenly, but to make kampong nasi lemak, use a bamboo steamer or Thai maw neung, lined with banana leaves or muslin.”

“Rice cookers are certainly convenient, and we did use them when making coconut rice in large quantities at Sate Kampar,” Branca admits. “But steaming rice is the absolute best way to make Southeast Asian style rice. You can infuse rice with the scent of bamboo and banana leaves through steaming, as well as ensuring that creamy coconut rice still maintains its distinct, individual grains.”

The first step in making coconut rice is to hydrate the jasmine rice grains with coconut cream overnight, or for at least four hours. “I use jasmine rice because it’s not too starchy and won’t stick. Nasi lemak should have separated, distinct grains.”

Along with a couple thick slices of peeled galangal, she buries two knotted pandan leaves in the rice prior to steaming. “Use the whole blade, tie it into a knot, then crush the knot a bit to release its aroma. This is the kampong way of doing things,” Branca says.

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River Twice hand roll, photo by Mike Prince

Line the inside of a bamboo steamer or a maw neung with a banana leaf and set it over a pot of boiling water. Pour the hydrated grains of rice onto the banana leaf and season with a few pinches of salt. Branca drops her voice to a whisper: “A pinch of salt is necessary for coconut cream to taste and smell creamier. Salt enhances the flavor of coconut cream. This is my secret.” Cover the steamer with a lid, or with another piece of banana leaf and steam for about twenty minutes. Right before the rice is done steaming, Branca adds a couple tablespoons of coconut cream to the top of the rice.

Once you remove the rice from the steamer, fluff it with a bamboo rice paddle, which the grains won’t stick to. “When you serve nasi lemak, it is best to wrap the hot rice in banana leaf. The heat brings out the beautiful combination of coconut cream and banana leaf aromas, and when one opens the packet, it is just the most heavenly smell,” Branca says. She serves her nasi lemak with a halved hard-boiled egg, homemade sambal, roasted peanuts, small Malaysian sun-dried anchovies which are fried to a crisp, and a few slices of cucumber.

Branca’s wizardry with rice also extends far beyond nasi lemak. Recently, she teamed up with chef Randy Rucker of River Twice. Rucker’s team manipulates Blue Moon Acres rice from New Jersey in a variety of inventive dishes and since Rucker and Branca’s collaborative dinner, Branca’s hand has left its mark in their kitchen.

Blue Moon Acres grows its rice organically, using natural Korean farming techniques. “It’s husked the day we get it, so it’s incredibly fresh,” Rucker tells me. At River Twice, a New American restaurant where chirashi bowls appear comfortably on the menu next to magnificently decadent burgers, Rucker serves a seaweed hand roll, comprised of rice made on the stove top and not in a singing machine. Rucker also hydrates his grains. “We wash the rice five or six times until the starch runs clean, soak it for ninety minutes in that same water, then after it’s cooked on the stovetop, we season it with sugar kelp and kombu.”

One of the best bites I’ve had in recent memory was a rice crisp at River Twice, with a Barnegat Bay scallop languishing across it. The rice crisp was made by blending the same scallop’s feet with leftover rice, creating a mash that is then dried and fried into a perfectly puffed brown chip. The effervescent rice wine that Branca had lent her expertise in making was used to season the scallop and chip right before I popped it in my mouth.

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