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.

Crave - - FEATURE - Words Tif­fany Chan Pho­tos Sa­man­tha Sin

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.”

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