NO MORE MR RICE GUY
Once, the quality of its rice could make or break a Chinese restaurant. But while the grain remains a local staple, there are few true rice connoisseurs. A chef and a food critic weigh in on why we should pay more attention to what’s in our rice bowl.
When I was young, my parents fondly called me a faan tung, or rice bucket. I suppose it was something I inherited from my grandfather, who would proclaim he was still hungry if he didn’t have a bowl of rice with every meal. I cut down my rice intake in my late teens for “health reasons”: I was told refined grains were empty calories, difficult to digest and, worse, that “girls should not be eating so much rice”. Yet even now, when we have steamed fish for dinner, I find myself chowing down bowl after bowl, allowing thin, oily soy sauce to coat each grain.
In China, rice is traditionally consumed in the south, whereas noodles are prevalent in the north. The Cantonese word for rice is faan, which translates to “meal”. After all, no Cantonese meal is complete without rice, with a mouthful of rice following every mouthful of another dish.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, rice shops were ubiquitous, with one or more every few blocks. Today, however, only a few remain. One of Hong Kong’s most prolific food critics and bloggers, 48-year-old K.C. Koo, remembers his mother going to the rice shop.
“It was normal to just buy five or 10 jin bags of rice. We only had rice to eat, so we paid attention to the nuances. We knew exactly that this is Five Goats si miu (a type of long grain rice), that this is Golden Phoenix si miu. We had this concept ingrained in our minds,” he says. “But the next generation, it’s not their fault, but they don’t know because they had no exposure to this kind of thing. If you grew up after the
70s, mothers stopped cooking as much or bought rice from the supermarket, where they standardise everything, so everything tastes the same.”
Koo is picky when it comes to rice and stresses the importance of a quality bowl of rice in a Cantonese meal. “In simple char siu rice or an abalone, shark’s fin or fish maw dish, the most important thing is the rice. You order those dishes so you can eat it with the rice,” he says. “We eat Cantonese minced pork meatloaf always with rice, so the rice needs to have its own flavour to match the pork, otherwise it will be too salty.”
Lau Chun, director at Kin’s Kitchen, explains that the kind of rice an eatery serves often indicates what class, or how expensive, it is.
“Just looking at the type of rice they use on a very preliminary level, the cheapest kind would be Vietnamese grains, which are commonly served in cha chaan tengs. More common, and slightly more upscale, are Australian and Thai rice, which are all-rounders and relatively competitive price-wise. The better places include brands such as Five Goat or Golden Phoenix.”
Koo goes as far to say that the quality of a Cantonese restaurant is determined by the quality of the rice it serves.
“Local eateries such as Foo Lam Restaurant and Ah Yat take their rice seriously. One restaurant in Central uses Golden Phoenix si miu rice and charges $25 a bowl. It has other branches across the harbour that serve worse rice, but for $15 a bowl – what I call ‘useless rice’. They tell you upfront what you’re getting. I would rather pay $10 more for better rice – rice that tastes like rice,” Koo says. “In the siu laap shops, they give you so much rice, but it is bad – separated, soggy, almost porridge-like. You’re eating what looks like rice but doesn’t taste like anything.”
Ironically, with rice, you don’t always get what you pay for, Koo says. “The upscale restaurants don’t prioritise their rice. Now it’s so serious, I dare say five- or even six-star restaurants don’t care about the rice.”
So what should we look for in a bowl of rice? For Lau, it’s a personal preference. “In Hong Kong, we especially like long-grained si miu rice, thin and long and sturdy, with a bite. Today, a lot of people like brands such as Golden Elephant and Golden Phoenix from Thailand.” However, Koo argues that the rice they produce is different every year, and “no one can taste the difference anyway”.
Every region produces unique rice. To get the best of all worlds, traditional rice shops made their own blends – not to any specific formula, but by trial and error, and instinct.
“Heung mai, or aromatic rice or Jasmine rice from Southeast Asia, is very floral and fragrant but it has no rice taste. Long-grain si miu has a distinct rice flavour but not the aroma. The shops would blend the rice and experiment with different ratios, to see which texture and aroma sold best. But that is all in the past,” Koo says.
It was also common for rice shops to blend new and old rice. “Fresh rice has a more complex flavour, is more fragrant and the grains are much more separated; not very glutinous,” Lau says. “The way each absorbs water is also different. Old rice is drier, firmer and can’t absorb water well. It also lacks flavour.”
Different types of rice are best for different occasions: fresh rice is considered best eaten on its own; short-grained rice is best for congee; old, stale rice is perfect for fried rice because it’s drier and won’t clump.
A bowl of rice is never just a bowl of rice; it’s a nuanced staple. Or at least, it was, Koo insists. Few young people will deliberately order a bowl of rice at dinner, and if they do, they are unlikely to care about the quality.
“It may not even be relevant to talk about this now. Now we eat everything: noodles, ramen,” Koo says. “A lot of girls don’t eat rice at night, if at all. So why do we bring this up now? Because rice has always been good in the past, but not anymore,” he says. “You go to any restaurant, it looks like rice – it’s not too hard, not too soft – so we think it’s rice. Pour in the soy sauce. Perfect. No one has standards anymore. No one knows how to have standards.”