• Premium rice cookers are a popular choice across Asia. (amana images RF)Source: amana images RF
'Proper' Asians use rice cookers. It might be true, but are they all made equal?
Tammi Kwok

5 Mar 2021 - 12:34 PM  UPDATED 11 Mar 2021 - 10:17 AM

--- Diana Chan is bringing the wonder of Asian cuisine to your homes in the second series of Asia Unplated with Diana Chan, Thursdays at 8pm on SBS Food and streaming on SBS On Demand. ---


Some people plan their weddings for years. Some, the birth of their first child. Me? I knew exactly what I wanted for my push present.

A rice cooker.

But not just any rice cooker. If the brands Zojirushi, Tiger or Cuckoo has ever crossed your search bar, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. These are the Rolls Royce of rice cookers, and you’re looking to pay upwards of $350 for a basic unit. Of course, basic in this case means that it’ll sing, dance, and have 10 different presets, because not all rice (and rice dishes) are made equal.

So why drop a fortune for a machine you could essentially get at the supermarket for $15? There is a bit of technology involved, and I promise that it earns its keep.

How to cook the perfect rice, according to science
It's texture not taste, that makes rice perfect.

The basic science of cooking rice involves water, heat and rice. The rice absorbs the heated water to become soft and cooked, and you want to account for some evaporation as well. Simple, right? This is where the big bucks come in. A cheap and cheery rice cooker uses just a heating element at the bottom of the pot, mimicking a stovetop, and boils the rice until enough water evaporates/absorbs, causing a spike in temperature (boiling water doesn’t go above 100C unless it’s under pressure). The thermostat then turns the rice cooker to “warm” and your rice is ready. The problem with this is that it’s basically either “high heat” or “off”, which can cause patchy cooking. No option to turn the heat down to a simmer, here.

Back to basics: How to make perfect rice
Who knew there were so many ways to cook rice? Most of them aren't correct, of course.

The more costly rice cookers also use a heating element at the bottom, but seals and pressure cook the rice, with heavy-duty insulation to ensure the rice cooks evenly. And that’s just with white rice. The settings also adjust for brown rice, congee, multigrain mixes, and in some cases, nurunji (crispy rice) and cakes. Oh, and let’s not forget the steaming and soup options. You’re basically paying for a multi-cooker that specialises in rice.

"To many Asians, rice is the very foundation of nourishment. Its texture and smells alone is enough to conjure up all sorts of childhood memories."

But before you can yell “expensive unitasker!”, let me first say that rice isn’t just a vehicle for a variety of toppings. To many Asians, rice is the very foundation of nourishment. Its texture and smells alone is enough to conjure up all sorts of childhood memories, and if the personal stories aren’t enough to convince you, then surely the tales of Japanese apprentices who spend 10 years learning to wash rice for sushi, would. In that sense, it’s easy to see how families would pay a veritable fortune for a well-made rice cooker.

Marion Grasby on how to cook rice the Thai way
Does cooking rice over a pot sound intimidating? This may change your mind.

If you’re still looking for ways to justify a shiny new toy (let’s face it, I may dream of waking up to the sweet smell of cooking rice every morning, but I was also taught how to cook perfect rice on the stove. $400 is still a lot of money!), then look no further. These recipes should help tip the scale a little, and if you’re a gadget-lover like I am, the excitement will do the rest.

Korean sauna eggs

Korean sauna eggs differ from Japanese onsen eggs in that they refer to eggs you buy to snack on when you go to the sauna, rather than eggs that are cooked in the sauna. Traditionally wrapped in clay before being cooked, Korean sauna eggs are similar to Egyptian hamine eggs in that they are historically cooked over low heat for a long period of time (think 10-18 hours) in order for the egg whites to undergo the Maillard reaction, turning brown and adding a meaty flavour. These days, however, you can easily achieve the same effect by pressure-cooking your eggs for an hour or so, and let the machine do the work for you! 

Get lost in the silky dream world of onsen eggs
Silky, custardy egg whites and a just-set jammy yolk might just be the key to happiness served over rice.

Rice cooker cake

Rice cooker sponge

Yes, cake in a rice cooker. Asians have been using this technique to make perfect sponge and castella cakes for years, and it’s a great way to have your cake and eat it too! (Without turning on the oven in summer.)

Rice cooker oatmeal

Rice cooker oatmeal with roasted stone fruit

Set and forget oatmeal? Yes, please! This recipe is the perfect example of how the congee setting is not just for congee. You’re welcome. 

Goat stew potjie with mushrooms

Goat stew potjie with mushrooms

Sure, it’s not a stretch of any imagination, that your rice cooker can cook perfect rice, grains and congee. But did you know that you can cook stews, too? If yours has a pressure cook or multi cook function, you can absolutely use it to cook your favourite stews in less time! 

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Yoghurt with black sticky rice

I love the texture of black sticky rice; it retains a lovely chewy bite after cooking that contrasts beautifully with the silky yoghurt.

Hoi An chicken rice

The style of cooking the chicken is very similar to the Chinese method of cooking Hainanese chicken, but the finished dish is closer to a chicken salad. It is traditionally served with fresh green papaya and earthy turmeric rice.

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