By Yoko Tsujimoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterOSAKA — You don't have to have a rice cooker these days, particularly if you want just one bowl, as there are single portions available at convenience stores and pre-cooked packs that just need to be microwaved. Nonetheless, small rice cookers are selling well among people who want to eat just one serving of fresh steamed rice.
The Poddi rice cooker sold by Shinmei Kitchen Co., a rice-polishing company in Kobe, does not look like a rice cooker. It's small enough to be carried in one hand. It measures 15.5 centimeters wide, 19.7 centimeters high and 18 centimeters deep and weighs 1.35 kilograms. It comes in seven colors such as pink, yellow and green.
Rice in Japan is usually handled in a traditional unit of volume called go. One go is equivalent to filling one measuring cup that comes with the rice cooker, or about 180 milliliters. Poddi can handle from 0.5 go to 1.5 go of rice.
Courtesy of Thermos
A Thermos bento box that can cook rice
Courtesy of Balmuda Inc.
Balmuda The Gohan
In addition to cooking regular varieties of rice, the small rice cooker also has a special function to cook rice in just 10 minutes when using a product called soft steam rice. This processed rice was developed by a team of Waseda University, a company and a local government. It doesn’t require washing or being soaked in water before it’s cooked, and can be eaten after 15 minutes, including extra time to let it stand.
Shinmei Kitchen started selling the Poddi rice cooker online in February 2016 with 0.5-go packs of the soft steam rice, and it has turned out to be a hit. More than 10,000 units have been sold so far.
The rice cooker has been available at the Tokyu Hands Umeda store in Osaka since last November.
"Young customers like the product because it can cook rice in 10 minutes, while elderly customers prefer it for its space-saving design," said a shop clerk in charge.
Shinmei Kitchen President Mitsuhito Fujio said his company developed the appliance based on market research it conducted as part of its efforts to address the issue of the lower consumption of rice among today’s consumers. "We found strong demand for eating freshly cooked rice, even among people who live alone. But at the same time, some say cooking rice is bothersome," the 43-year-old president said. "Such opinions have prompted us to develop a product that does not require all the troublesome steps of cooking rice."
Fujio also said, "For breakfast, users can cook rice as easily as making toast."
Tokyo-based housewares maker Thermos K.K. released in September a "bento meal box that can cook rice." You first put 0.7 go of rice with water in a special container before heating it in a microwave for eight minutes. The container should then be placed inside an insulated portable case and left to stand for 30 minutes. You can enjoy steaming hot rice for lunch just by bringing the case to your office or school.
The product can cook rice like a real appliance and can also be served on its own. These advantages have helped it "sell much more than expected," an official of the company said, adding the maker is considering releasing a smaller version of the product.
Among other appliances that can cook from 0.5 go of rice is Balmuda The Gohan from Balmuda Inc., which is known for its stylish designs. But it doesn’t have a warming function to keep rice warm.
"No matter how much we improve the functions, it’s impossible for us to maintain the flavor and aroma of freshly cooked rice," a company official said. "We thought it’d be better to make a rice cooker that can cook delicious rice, even in small amounts, thus encouraging users to cook rice every time they eat."
Aroma is key
"The rice itself is important, but water also plays a major role" in preparing delicious food, according to cooking expert Hiroko Sakamoto.
Many people today use mineral water for washing and soaking rice. Hard water is not recommended for this purpose. "The abundant calcium in hard water prevents rice from absorbing the water, causing cooked rice to get dry," Sakamoto said.
Why are we so fascinated with freshly cooked rice? "More than anything else, it’s the aroma that matters," she said. "This is an important factor for regions where rice is a staple, as illustrated by the fact that in China and Thailand, freshly cooked rice-flavored herbs are used for sweets."
Rice grains include various substances, such as starch and proteins, which contain amino acids, the source of umami flavor. According to Sakamoto, freshly cooked rice has the best flavor and aroma, but the aroma deteriorates as amino acids, lipids and other substances become oxidized as time passes and the rice’s temperature falls.
"If you have freshly cooked rice, you can feel satisfied, even if the other dishes are simple," she said. Speech