When I was little, I used to help my mom prepare for dinner by washing the rice. My instructions were to wash it until the water ran clear. This was the perfect job for little, slightly-OCD me. I would wash and rinse repeatedly trying for the clearest water possible.
Once I asked her why we needed to wash the rice so much. She told me that rice used to be coated with talc and washing helped to rinse the powder off. There wasn't any talc on the rice we were eating. Those days were long past, but still, I washed. Washing helped the grains to be shiny and pearly, said mom. It made pretty rice.
Once I left my mother's house, I never washed my rice. I'd huck some rice into the pot, eyeball the water level as I filled it from the kitchen sink, and then set it the rice cooker to do its thing. I didn't care about "pretty rice." I just wanted dinner to be done in 20 minutes. My rice always came out fine. What is rice but something to temper whatever meat or fish or spicy side dish that is being eaten? Who cares what it looks like? I never paid much attention to separateness or shininess of the grains.
Washing rice is a topic that has been discussed myriad times on blogs and boards across the internet. Most Asians were raised to wash their rice, often not knowing why. Most haoles have never heard of such a thing.
I was thinking about this today as I was preparing rice for our lunch. Bunny, my three-year-old, requested kim (toasted sea weed) and rice so she could make kim bap (sushi). She asked if she could help prepare lunch, as she often does. I carefully measured the rice into the pot and was about to put in on, but I stopped and said, "Here. Wash this rice until until the water is clear."
"How come?" she replied.
"So it will be shiny and pretty," I said.
That answer seemed to satisfy her, and she stood on her chair quietly washing rice at the sink while I prepared the other parts of our meal. Then it suddenly dawned on me, the real reason why Korean mothers have been telling their children to wash and wash and wash that rice.
For ten minutes I heard nothing but the sound of swishing water and softly crunching rice. But more than the fact that I did appreciate the few moments of quiet during a normally frenzied time, I loved seeing Bunny so focused on doing her best to complete her task.
—Stefania Pomponi Butler