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.
Nurungji 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.