Rice mojo and hot sex.

I thought I knew rice. I don’t. Seductions of Rice, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, bitch-slapped my arrogance with 480 pages of research and recipes. I’m Korean-American, damn it. I should have an innate knowledge of rice–rice mojo–that flows through my blood like cornbread mojo in Georgians, bagel mojo in New Yorkers, and hot dog mojo in Chicagoans. Didn’t my people feed for millennia off crops of rice grown at the base of hazy purple mountains? Didn’t I watch serene rice paddy waters reflect electric blue dragonflies fornicating in the Korean countryside?

A little of my mojo came back after I found that those 480 pages overlooked one of my favorite Korean rice foods: nurungji. I wasn’t surprised to see Korea mostly ignored despite the two big chapters devoted to China and Japan. Am I hurt? Well I’m used to it. ::sniff:: But nurungji (noo roong jee), simple food at its simplest, deserves a page of its own.

nurungjiNurungji is the nutty crunchy flavorful crust that cradles the rice as it cooks. (Photo shows rice and millet nurungji.) Other countries have variations on this rice crust: the Spanish call it soccarat in their paella, the Cubans call it raspa, the Iranians call it tahdig. The Chinese deep fry their crusts and make sizzling rice soup. That toasted rice flavor is popular in other ways: Thai people toast raw rice and grind it for use in cooking (kao kua), and the Japanese toast brown rice and mix it with green tea to make delicious genmaicha–a great way to get your antioxidants if you dislike plain green tea.

My favorite girlhood memories include tearing into crisp brown nurungji dotted with soft clumps of white rice that provided a sweet foil to the toasted flavor. My cousin, who grew up in Korea, confesses to preferring cookies for dessert, but that’s only because his mom used a rice steamer. Poor bastard. The ubiquitous steamer has nearly obliterated homemade nurungji, making it another casualty of technology. Well that’s not entirely true. Nurungji sticks like you wouldn’t believe, so the best nurungji comes out of a modern invention: a heavy non-stick pot. Prior to non-stick, rice stuck so tenaciously to the pot that boiling it was the only to remove it. So boiled nurungji used to be a thrifty way to use every last precious grain back in the old days. (I have no research to back this up–that’s just the kind of thing that Koreans do. Eighty percent of them also cover their remote controls with plastic wrap. Again, no research, I just know.) While you can buy pre-packaged weird-tasting nurungji at the Korean grocer, c’mon. We’re talking about a food scraped up from the bottom of the pot.

So how to make it? Without attention, nurungji can go very wrong, so save it for a day when you have time. Cook medium-grain Korean or Japanese style rice on the stove over medium-low heat in a heavy non-stick pot and let it cook longer than usual. When you fluff the rice, there will be a pleasant nutty smell, and a crust will have formed below and on the sides. Don’t disturb this. After fluffing, turn the heat down to low and let the rice rest as you usually do. Remove the rice after resting to preserve the nurungji’s crunch, and leave it on low heat. Perfect nurungji takes practice–I still burn a batch now and then–but that just makes getting it right all the more satisfying.

Eat the nurungji immediately or leave it on the heat to darken as you eat your meal. Don’t let it burn! When it’s perfect, it will be golden, hot, and crunchy. The flavor should soothe your soul and ease your troubles (unless you’re dead inside!). Package leftovers in an airtight bag and use it soon or pop it in the fridge or freezer. Drying it out makes for better keeping but will take longer to rehydrate. You can actually deep fry this for a sinful treat, but the usual way to eat it is to put it in a bowl with some boiling water, stir, and eat it plain or with kimchi and assorted side dishes (banchan). Some people like it watery, others like it thick, some like it hot, others like it cool.

As for me, I loved it most the way my mom used to serve it to me–with ice cubes stirred in and leftover strips of breakfast bacon in my fingers. The simplicity of the cold rice paired with the fatty salty pork made life worth living and impending adulthood almost tolerable. Ignore such Korean food at your peril. The June issue of Men’s Health noted that Korean men have more sex at 4.5 times a week than the men of any other surveyed country, including the United States, which came in 17th at a measly 2.95 times a week. If people don’t start feeding their kids more nurungji we may see a chronic sex shortage in the next few generations. I urge the rest of the world to eat more nurungji and Korean food. What is everybody waiting for? If anything should fire your mojo, it should be the goal of hot sex 5 times a week.

Oh heck, put on another pot and make it 10.

The birds & the (non-) berries.

While running this morning, I passed a long hedge and noticed a violent disturbance in the leaves. Then I heard fluttering overhead. To the west, an ominous shadow of a flying bird on the pavement followed mine. I ran and ran and it cawed and cawed, and the bird shadow stayed exactly five feet behind my fleeing shadow. My eyes widened as I anticipated that horrible moment when the shadow would gradually grow bigger and bigger until it finally merged with mine, and I’d see nothing but crimson clouds from a bloody eye-pecking orgy that would put a damper on running ever again, not to mention staining my shirt so thoroughly that I’d have to resort to presoaking with Tide detergent on laundry day.

At the very least, I anticipated that the bird might crap on my head out of spite and/or entertainment and/or target practice. It didn’t, but now that I’m out of danger, the thought of a tiny poo shadow falling from the bird shadow and landing on the head of my running shadow makes me giggle uncontrollably. Hee hee. But nothing happened. The bird left, perhaps assured that I wasn’t trying to eat its chicks or its food, and my head and shoulders remained poop free. That’s when I noticed squashed black splotches on the ground under the trees.

Mulberry season has begun.

mulberries

You rarely see this non-berry berry for sale (it’s actually a group of fruits and not technically a berry) because they’re absurdly delicate and perishable. Not that the price for local berries would likely be worth it anyway. I’ve heard that some varieties are better than others. If you’re lucky enough to have one of those tastier varieties, good for you. But the mulberries I’ve sampled here so far don’t have the distinct flavor profile of your raspberries or blackberries. They have no fun tartness to counter the mild sweetness. Even the sexy Pyramus and Thisbe love tragedy and the link to China’s great silk trade can’t delude you into thinking that these mulberries taste great unless you’re susceptible to romance and suggestion. The mulberry’s importance to me lies in its price: nothing. You don’t pass up free fruit.

At home I hauled out the twelve-foot ladder and dragged it into the garden under our neighbor’s mulberry tree that overhangs our yard. I picked a handful of mulberries before giving up and shaking the branches to let the ripest ones fall, poking the more reticent berries. This seemed like a good idea until I got back on the ground and realized that the ground is covered with . . . what’s the word . . . dirt. I plucked the black and purple berries out of the mud, cold-heartedly stealing the fruit from the angry chipmunks who chittered about revenge from a safe distance. I lovingly rinsed the berries in a gentle spray of water and popped the darkest one in my mouth.

Now, I don’t know if it’s because of the recent rains, the hot spring, or the irregular orbits of Saturn’s moons, but it tasted like nothing. Nothing laced with a hint of plant. I tried another one. Also nothing. Imagine eating an under-ripe seedless raspberry with no tartness. There wasn’t even a trace of sweetness that could be enhanced with sugar or baking. With a sigh, I tossed all my labor into the trash.

I sought comfort in the farmer’s market where I bought a quart of bright little local strawberries (also not technically a berry) that turned out to be housing the biggest, hairiest, deadest spider I’ve ever seen in produce. After one shriek, two frantic swipes with a fork, and three extremely thorough rinses, I sat down to a bowl of strawberries that still held onto the living tangy sweetness of the sun. It’s at moments like these when I forgive the stinky sweat, perpetual leg-shaving, and slimy sunblock of hot weather.

The birds and the chipmunks can have the mulberries. I’ll chow down on my two-dollar harvest of cultivated fruit, one of the great benefits of being human. The animals don’t know what they’re missing. Then again, I’m going for another run tomorrow. If those chipmunks are smarter than I think they are, I might look down at the pavement to find tiny little shadows trailing mine. One chipmunk can’t do much, but dozens? Hundreds? The blood! The carnage!

Oh that reminds me, I’m almost out of Tide.