--- Catch Marion Grasby cooking jok alongside Silvia Colloca in the three-part mini-series, Wok Vs Pot, Thursdays at 8pm from 27 August on SBS Food or stream it on SBS On Demand ---
Marion Grasby’s mother grew up in a rice-growing village. “She would never waste a single grain of rice,” says Grasby, who is a cook, author and host of Wok Vs Pot. Thai families were brought up under a notion passed down the generations that throwing rice away would bring bad luck.
A great area of Thailand is dedicated to rice production. If they live in a rice-growing area, Thai people know the ins and outs and challenges of cultivating rice from scratch. But the preciousness of rice is recognised by all, whether they live in a rural village or in a city, says Grasby. “Rice growing and rice cultivation is historically very important to Thai people. When you have a food that is prominently woven into everyday life, it becomes very important.”
“Younger people, we tend to not appreciate those things as much, because it's a little easier to access things. But if you are a young person in Thailand, there's definitely that sense of guilt if you don't treat rice as a precious commodity.”
For this reason, Grasby loves Thai rice dishes like fried rice and jok (rice porridge), which are often made from leftover rice to avoid waste. “When I'm in Bangkok, I'm often out exercising and we'll stop at a cafe with my parents after and I would eat chicken fried rice or crab fried rice for breakfast,” she says.
Where fried rice is treated as a side dish in Western countries, Grasby says it isn’t quite so in Thailand. “You would have fried rice on its own as your lunch or breakfast dish rather than it being just a little sideshow to your main dishes.”
Thai jok, which Grasby cooks in SBS Food’s Wok Vs Pot series, is also considered to be a well-rounded breakfast, often including a source of protein like pork or egg. Thailand boasts two different types of rice porridge, with jok being the thicker of the two. “Historically, rice porridge would have been a cheap way to fill the tummies of a large family or village because you can make a little bit of rice go a long way,” says Grasby.
While many different countries serve rice porridge, each type is distinct. For example, Grasby explains that “Chinese congee is the well-known cousin of Thai jok. It is a lot thicker, the rice grains are broken down a lot more and there's less seasoning. With jok, we have a myriad of seasonings that we put in at the end, chilli vinegar, fish sauce, white pepper, and the texture is more on the soupy side instead of being pasty.”
Besides fried rice and jok, another kind of rice dish that draws the lunchtime crowd to Thailand’s street-side stalls is ‘single-dish food’. Known as ahan jian diao [Thai: อาหารจานเดียว], single-dish food centralises rice or noodles. A mound of steaming rice is topped with dishes like curry or stir-fries, served up to customers in record time.
The absorption method
As rice is often a recurring star of mealtimes, you cannot skimp on its cooking process. Grasby still cooks rice over the stove, echoing how her mother’s village has always done it with just a pot and a fire.
“My family has always been an absorption method family, like most Thai families I know,” she says, proceeding to explain the science behind this method. “If you put rice in a vacuum, you’ll only need a one-to-one ratio of rice and water to cook. In our non-vacuum world, you get some evaporation so you need to add a little bit of extra water.”
“Whether you’re making two kilos of rice or one cup of rice, you actually only need an extra half cup of water on top of your one-to-one ratio.” After pouring the one-to-one ratio of rice and water into a pot, Grasby advises using a ‘life-hack’ most Asian mothers teach their children: resting your index fingertip on top of the rice, and pouring extra water until it reaches your first knuckle. “This works for any quantity of rice because that first knuckle of water is your half cup extra.”
“The extra five minutes of sitting there makes a difference between really good rice and rice that isn’t as good. It gets everything evenly hydrated while not overcooking the rice.”
She cooks the rice over high heat, uncovered. Once the water has evaporated and pock marks form in the rice, Grasby turns the heat down to very low, places a lid on and cooks for another five minutes or so. The heat is then switched off and the pot is left to sit for five minutes with the lid on. “The extra five minutes of sitting there makes a difference between really good rice and rice that isn’t as good. It gets everything evenly hydrated while not overcooking the rice.”
What you end up with is fragrant rice grains that are still intact. “Thai jasmine rice should be able to be fluffed with a fork, and if you pick it up with a spoon it should not have bits of gluggy stuff stuck together, it should be separate.”
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