Dinner Japan House’s 10 Ways to Rice: An Exploration of Asian Culture: Food and Drink: Smile Politely

On rare occasions, Japan House invites chefs from different cultures who work together to create a truly memorable experience. This time I had the privilege of sharing The 10 Ways of Rice: An Exploration of Asian Culture.

Jennifer and Archana welcome everyone to dinner.  Photo by Matthew Macomber.Photo by Matthew Macomber.

Led by Archana Shekara, professor of graphic design at Illinois State University (India) and Jennifer Gunji-Ballsrud, director of Japan House, University of Illinois (Japan), they brought together eight other chefs to represent ten different cultures (represented between brackets) and how they use the rice. The leaders were: Annie Sungkajun (Thailand), Eman Al-Zubeidi (Palestine-Lebanon), Jason Reblando (Philippines), Jimmy Luu (Vietnam), Ladan Bahmani (Iran), Erol Sozen (Turkey), Suejung Han (South Korea ) , and Tak Cheung (China). Several chefs came from across the country to help organize this event.

A table with a penguin chopstick holder, a rice cracker in a small bowl, a wooden utensil, a cloth napkin, and a brochure of food and chefs for the night.  Photo by Matthew Macomber.Photo by Matthew Macomber.

A lovingly designed booklet described some of the dishes and instructions on how to prepare them. The chef in charge described each item as it was brought to our tables.

Yarong Rachel Guan playing a Yamaha electronic keyboard.  Photo by Matthew Macomber.Photo by Matthew Macomber.

While we ate, PhD student Yarong Rachel Guan played some amazing piano pieces for the attendees.

A sake cocktail in a tall wine glass.  Photo by Matthew Macomber.Photo by Matthew Macomber.

To start, we tasted a sake cocktail (Japan) made with rice alcohol. There was a good bite of bubbles in this cocktail, and the evening started well. Rice crackers also waited for us at our tables and provided a small savory snack while Japan House’s chefs and staff finished preparing the food in the kitchen.

Makgeolli alcohol in a small glass.  Photo by Matthew Macomber.Photo by Matthew Macomber.

Continuing the alcohol cure, the makgeolli (South Korea) was served to us next. This rice wine was soft, sweet and vaguely milky in taste. It wasn’t quite like anything I’ve had before.

A halved goi cuon with dip artfully splashed onto one side of the rectangular plate.  Photo by Matthew Macomber.Photo by Matthew Macomber.

Then goi cuon (Vietnam). Tofu and vegetables rolled in rice paper made this appetizer nice and light. A good thing too, because we still had twenty dishes to take away!

Appe and coconut chutney with a single mustard leaf topping in the chutney pool.  Photo by Matthew Macomber.Photo by Matthew Macomber.

The appe and coconut chutney (India) was a fun dish. Almost bite-sized, the balls (appe) were the perfect size to eat as an appetizer with the chutney. There was a surprising amount of spice in the rice balls, but not unpleasant. It added to the overall experience and made it more memorable.

Warak enab with eggplant and potato slices on a square plate covered with olive oil and dark sauce.  Photo by Matthew Macomber.Photo by Matthew Macomber.

The warak enab (Palestine-Lebanon) was the tastiest dish so far. Grape leaves wrapped around vegetables with a slice of potato and eggplant on the side, the sauce covering it all gave it a deep, dark and rich flavor. Surprisingly strong compared to previous dishes. We also enjoyed a cold glass of genmaicha (Japan), a roasted rice tea.

Jok with thick slices of fresh ginger layered over the porridge.  Photo by Matthew Macomber.Photo by Matthew Macomber.

Finishing our appetizers was a cup of jok (Thailand). Rice porridge with shitake mushrooms, ginger and coriander, I surprised myself how much I enjoyed the porridge. I embraced the intense palate cleansing taste of fresh ginger and the simple warmth of rice. We were told that it is a popular dish when people are sick in Thailand because it takes little effort to enjoy it, and I believe it.

Bansang where the white rice is in a small bowl and a small three-compartment tray holds the slices of seaweed, kimchi and fried tofu/vegetables.  Photo by Matthew Macomber.Photo by Matthew Macomber.

Starting our main course was simply bansang (South Korea). This simple bowl of white rice was served with crispy seaweed, kimchi, tofu and a fried vegetable. A bit of everything, it’s hard to go wrong with a simple, well-made table like this.

Garlic fried rice in a small bowl with rosemary on top of the rice.  Photo by Matthew Macomber.Photo by Matthew Macomber.

For garlic lovers, you’ll be happy to hear that we enjoyed the Garlic Fried Rice (Philippines). Topped with rosemary, this hot rice dish certainly had enough garlic to satisfy anyone, like me, who enjoys the taste.

Rice paper salad with the black sesame rice paper sticking out of the salad and the chili oil gathering in the opposite corner of the square plate.  Photo by Matthew Macomber.Photo by Matthew Macomber.

A rice paper salad (Vietnam) spiced things up (literally) with chili oil alongside strips of mango, vegetables and black sesame rice paper. One of the more unusual main courses, every bite was interesting and different.

Tahchin with barberries on top of the cake and raisins scattered all around the slice of cake.  Photo by Matthew Macomber.Photo by Matthew Macomber.

At first glance a dessert, the tahchin (Iran) was certainly not after biting into it. Made with white rice, saffron, eggs and yogurt, this dish almost tasted like cake. Scattered raisins and barberries provided not only a little extra sweetness, but also my first consumption of barberries. They tasted like cranberries.

A dible ball in the middle of a square plate with a single leafy filling on top.  Photo by Matthew Macomber.Photo by Matthew Macomber.

Dible (Turkey) was a great way to enjoy green beans and rice. Served hot, it makes sense that it’s a comfort food in Turkey. It’s simple but satisfying all the same.

Cong dan mixian with green onions placed on the noodles and half a hard-boiled egg on the side.  Photo by Matthew Macomber.Photo by Matthew Macomber.

Cong dan Mixian (China) was another satisfying run. Rice noodles, green onions, a hard-boiled egg and vegetables for a pleasant taste. The dots of hoisin sauce and oyster sauce were nice artistic flourishes.

A scoop of biryani with a mint leaf on top and cucumber raita gathered in a pool along one side with another leafy garnish.  Photo by Matthew Macomber.Photo by Matthew Macomber.

Trying my best to keep up with the fast pace of the dishes, we were then served biryani and cucumber raita (India). With just a hint of heat, this dish of rice, vegetable, paneer and curd sauce was quite filling. The mint leaf on top served as a refreshing reminder that we weren’t far from dessert.

Ochazuke where there is a bowl of white rice (before the tea is poured into it) on a large platter with a small container of crispy toppings and another platter with small leafy greens and two pickled vegetables.  Photo by Matthew Macomber.Photo by Matthew Macomber.

To conclude our main course, we enjoyed the ochazuke (Japan). A collection of odds and ends with a few heavily marinated extras, we’ve been told this dish is a popular way to use up whatever’s left over at home. It’s common to always have rice and green tea on hand in Japan, so putting whatever you want on a bed of hot rice and pouring hot green tea over it makes for a simple and easy meal.

A large tray with mochi, halbai, jian dui and bibingka on a wooden tray in the larger tray and sutlac, shole zard, khao niaow ma muang and roz bi haleeb all in their own bowls in the larger tray.  Photo by Matthew Macomber.Photo by Matthew Macomber.

For dessert, they were all taken out at once on a single tray to browse according to our desires. I will list them here and mention a few of my personal highlights. The chefs prepared: sutlac (turkey, rice pudding with nuts), shole zard (Iran, rice pudding sweetened with saffron with slivered almonds), khao niaow ma muang (Thai, sticky rice topped with coconut milk and slices of mango), bibingka (Philippines, coconut rice cake), roz bi haleeb (Palestine-Lebanon, sweet rice pudding topped with pistachios and rose petals), jian dui (China, fried glutinous rice balls filled beans topped with sesame seeds), halbai (India, rice sweetened with jaggery and topped with dried coconut and saffron), mochi (Japan, rice cake with red bean paste), and finally a cup of genmaicha hot (japanese, roasted rice tea).

Of all this wonderful assortment of desserts, I enjoyed the roz bi haleeb and the halbai the most. The halbai was surprisingly soft and had a subtle sweetness that I liked. Archana learned this recipe from her family, as it was one of her great-grandmother’s favorites. With the roz bi haleeb, I loved the rose syrup added to the rice. Floral flavors in desserts are rare in our area so I try to savor them whenever possible.

Archana and Jennifer sharing a warm and friendly hug.  Photo by Matthew Macomber.Photo by Matthew Macomber.

When it was all over the chefs and staff came out so we could thank them for the hard work they put into the evening. Archana, a former graduate student of Jennifer’s, gave her a warm hug to close this wonderful event. Since these dinners are truly unique events, I’m glad I took the time to attend Japan House.

The eight guest chefs and some of Japan House's staff and interns stand by the windows smiling.  Photo by Matthew Macomber.Photo by Matthew Macomber.

Japan House
2000 Lincoln Ave S

Open during tea ceremonies (reservations required)

Open during other public events (see Japan House program)

Top image by Matthew Macomber.

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