SHIRLEY CHAN, a Chinese-American Web site designer, was born in Hong Kong, lives in Brooklyn, and has never cooked a pot of rice in her life. “One billion Chinese people cannot be wrong about rice,” she said: virtually every household has at least a basic rice cooker. As a child, it was her chore before each meal to wash the rice, measure it into the machine, and press the button. “It always, always comes out perfect,” she said. “Until I came here, I never even knew rice could burn.”
Although rice cookers are gaining in popularity in the United States, with a respectable 3 million sold last year, they are still not standard equipment. But American cooks with Asian, Middle Eastern or Caribbean traditions hovering over the kitchen often find them indispensable, and surprisingly adaptable. Domingo Guillen uses his to make vast batches of Puerto Rican arroz con gandules, rice and peas, before a weekly domino game at his apartment in the Inwood section of Manhattan.
Fairuza Akhtar, a restaurant owner in Jackson Heights, Queens, who was born in Pakistan, has developed a quick method for making fragrant, creamy biriyani with whole spices and bites of chicken, at home in her rice cooker. “My mother would fall down in a faint,” she said, referring to the traditionally reverent attitude toward biriyanis in Northern India and Pakistan. “But rice cookers are the way of the modern world.”
Ryosuke Tokuji, a graphic design student in Tokyo who lives in a dorm room with no kitchen, does all her cooking in a rice cooker. Like many larger models, hers has a built-in steamer, which she uses for dumplings, savory egg custards (chawan mushi) and fish.
Ms. Tokuji has even baked a sweet, buttery loaf of bread in her rice cooker, based on a recipe from a popular television show about a superhero’s quest to develop a “national loaf” for Japan. “It took all day, but it was very interesting,” she said.
Cooking foods other than rice in a rice cooker is like baking a layer cake in an Easy-Bake oven: best approached with patience, curiosity and something to snack on in the meantime.
Some people cook in their rice cookers because they have little choice: they live in tiny spaces, or can’t afford a stove, or live in sweltering climates where cooking on the stove or in the oven makes the kitchen too hot. But many just can’t resist taking their machines out for a spin. John Youngsun Park, a designer of video games in the San Francisco Bay Area, blasts the heat on his Sanyo to make noo roong ji, the toasted crust of rice that forms at the bottom of the traditional Korean stone rice pot. “You just want to see what it can do,” Mr. Park said. In fact, it can poach, steam and simmer, as well as turn out a crisp noo roong ji.
“People love that toasted-rice taste,” he said. “It’s even a flavor of ice cream in Seoul.” (Japanese cooks, however, consider toasted rice overcooked and highly undesirable. The unwanted crust left stuck to the bottom of the rice cooker is called okoge the same word used as slang for a single woman who spends a lot of time with gay men.)
A basic rice cooker consists of a nonstick metal bowl set inside a plastic-and-metal housing, with a heat source on the bottom. to cook plain rice: add rice, measure water, press start, walk away. The machine brings the mixture to a boil, reduces the heat for a prolonged simmer, then switches to a very low setting to keep the cooked rice at serving temperature.
How does the machine know when the rice is done? A built-in thermostat tracks the temperature of the bubbling mixture of rice and water. when the water boils and turns to steam, the temperature in the pot begins to rise, which signals the cooker to switch to warm.
But it’s easy to override the machine’s small brain. Press the “cook” button, melt butter in the bowl, and sweat a finely diced shallot in it until soft then add rice, broth and saffron strands, and start the machine again to make a daffodil-yellow pilaf. Cook some short-grain rice, then drizzle in some sesame oil and switch back to “cook,” mix in some kimchi and break eggs on top for a simple bibimbap, the Korean-American staple of rice “and whatever is in the refrigerator,” Mr. Park said.
The Steamy Way to Dinner