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All I need is my rice cooker.
I don’t own one of the newer models either, with all the bells and whistles that will cook your rice, wash your dishes then give you a back massage. I’ve had the same Tatung since I moved into my first apartment 20-plus years ago, and it was a hand-me-down when I got it. These bad boys are indestructible — buy one and you’re set for life.
The automatic rice cooker is a workhorse in every rice-obsessed Asian household. It became a standard appliance by the late 1950s, freeing up women from the daily tedium of cooking rice. My nainai grew up in the era without electric lights or running water (or literacy, for that matter). Between the invention of the rice cooker and the washing machine, she’d say women had nothing to do anymore.
The rice cooker works by fuzzy logic. You pour water into the cooker, then set a metal bowl with rice and more water inside. How much water should you add? A college roommate swore by the finger method: Add water up to the first joint on your index finger. Another friend measures water using the cooker’s lid, until it fills just the sloped part of the lid. My mom uses the one-cup rule: 1 cup of rice, 1 cup of water in the cooker, 1 cup in the bowl. It’s hardly scientific, but it’s impossible to screw up.
When the rice is finished cooking, the button pops up — thunk! — and the cooker automatically switches to warming mode. Genius.
I love my rice cooker like a third child, and it even goes on vacation with us. When my kids were young, the rice cooker got packed in one end of the trunk, the potty seat in the other end. Input, output, we humans really are as simple as that. Now we’ve graduated to traveling without the mobile potty, just the rice cooker. No reconstituted freeze-dried meals for us — we’re having steamed barbecue pork buns and chicken sticky rice in lotus leaves while on the road.
To be clear, I’m not a culinary expert. I’m an expert at ordering takeout and an extremely lazy home cook. Rice cookers were invented for people like me. There’s no skill or technique involved. It’s a one-button machine. You don’t have to watch the pot, and the rice comes out perfect — every single time.
I didn’t even know you could cook rice on a stovetop until I saw my in-laws and their Uncle Ben’s. “Ma fan,” as my mother would say. Too much bother.
And rice cookers aren’t just for rice — you can cook anything in them. Oatmeal, turnip cake, salt duck, any kind of soup. Cold day? Put in beef ribs and sliced ginger and you’ll have a fragrant soup steaming up the windows.
In Taiwan, 7-Elevens are clean and bright stores where you can buy wonderful things to eat. You’ll always find a rice cooker in warming mode, holding a bowl of tea leaf hard-boiled eggs.
Congee is basically a tiny bit of rice with a whole lot of water, which makes me laugh when I see congee on some fancy fusion menu going for $15 a bowl.
Get a pan insert that rests above the rice tin and you can steam an entire meal in at once. Rice on the bottom and an egg and ground pork meatloaf on top. Or salmon or cubed pork with rice powder. Every time, every recipe, the only thing you have to do is add water and push a button.
Buying a Tatung is a rite of passage for anyone preparing to chu guo, or leave the country. My mom’s Tatung was purchased in 1985 for our family’s move to the U.S. In 35 years and 4 months of daily use, it has never failed us.