The other day I sent my weekly meal plan to a friend who was at a loss for what to cook. Rather than being dazzled by my culinary range – and the adventurousness with which I approach feeding my picky children – she said, “You guys eat a lot of rice.”

It’s true. We love rice. Most days there’s warm rice in the rice cooker waiting to be the backdrop for a quick stir-fry lunch, to beef up a snack of packet miso soup, or to go with whatever I’m making for dinner.

Rice is the carbohydrate I grew up on. Sure, we ate bread and pasta, but it was rice at the heart of my mum’s Filipino-Canadian hybrid cooking. Much to Dad’s quiet disappointment, that cooking didn’t involve nearly enough potatoes. I have a pretty low opinion of potatoes. Occasionally I’ll buy some, thinking I can love them like other people seem to. Then I remember how annoying they are. The washing, peeling, cutting, boiling – and green shoots that grow if you’re too slow to use them. Rice would never. Throw some in the rice cooker, add water. Then, when it’s done, a cheerful song plays.

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Rice isn’t just life, rice is pleasant convenience.

With all this in mind, imagine me sitting down in Soul Dining’s new-ish CBD digs, the vast, swanky interiors a nice upgrade to the compact, futuristic Surry Hills original. Now imagine me spotting clay-pot rice with Glacier 51 toothfish on the menu. The grilled eggplant with anchovy paste and tomato jam looked delicious, as did the prawn tteokbokki with ‘nduja, but rice as a main dish is unusual. Typically, it’s a supporting act, quiet in its excellence – people only notice if it’s cooked badly.

Chef Daero Lee’s rice headlines deliberately. It’s been on the menu for three years and even though it takes 20 minutes to make (they warn of the wait time), it’s one of the most ordered dishes. On a busy night, co-owner Illa Kim says more than 50 clay pots are delivered, piping hot, from the kitchen’s ovens to the dining room. It’s also the one dish customers always opt for as an extra on top of the set menu.

The 20-minute wait time is probably not strategic, but it works well. Anticipation builds and rightly so: clay-pot rice deserves the spotlight. Made with short-grain koshihikari rice, which settles perfectly level just below the lip of the black clay pot, each al dente grain is infused with vegetable stock and a few secret ingredients – and evenly coated in a silky truffle butter.

Sitting on top is a fan of grilled, caramelised enoki mushrooms and a juicy piece of Glacier 51 toothfish. Topped with a glistening pile of trout roe, the mash of textures is almost transcendent – and the flavours are intoxicating.

If rice is used to taking the back seat, this dish makes up for it. Two kitchen teams are required to make it. One boils the clay pot of rice on the stove, then bakes it in the oven, while another section grills the toothfish, diligently painting on layer upon layer of a soy sauce reduction.

When my order arrived, I politely halved the fish before pushing the pot towards my dinner date so she could choose first. Then we split up the rice. But our civilised restraint wouldn’t last. After the first bite, we stopped talking and we stopped merely eating – we were devouring.

Talking to Kim, it seems neatly dividing up the dish isn’t the way to go. Instead, you should mix and dig in. “With Koreans there are normally two ways to eat things,” she tells Broadsheet. “For example, rice with soup: Daero mixes it, whereas I like to have my dishes separate. But with the clay-pot rice, I think his method is right – you have to mix it to get all the textures working together.”

One of my friends told me that when she was growing up in Taiwan, her parents said the number of rice grains left in her bowl was equal to the number of pock marks that would adorn her future husband’s face (a way to make sure kids didn’t waste rice).

If this Taiwanese tale is true, eating Soul Dining’s clay-pot rice will bring you a partner with beautiful, pristine skin – because leaving behind even a single morsel would be unthinkable.

souldining.com.au
@souldining