7 Rules for a Better Rice Bowl

Sho Spaeth wrote . . . . . . . . .

It may sound silly to put it this way, but before grain bowls became a thing, grain bowls were already a thing. Wherever people cooked whole grains and ate them, they likely put them in a bowl and put tasty stuff on top, both because it was delicious and because it was convenient. (Yes, even in America, where grain bowls are currently a “thing”!)

But bowls of rice with stuff thrown on top are only delicious if you give them enough thought and consideration. And while there are exceptions to any set of rules, I generally find that successful rice bowls almost always have certain elements in common, so I wanted to share a set of guidelines that I’ve relied upon to make great rice bowls with whatever I happen to have on hand. I’ve also created a few recipes for quick, easy-to-assemble meals that show how to put those guidelines into practice.

While lessons can be learned from rice bowls around the world, I’ve taken most of my cues Japan’s long tradition of meals-in-a-bowl-with-grains, which typically fall under the category of donburi. The term donburi is used both to mean a rice-bowl meal and the bowl in which a rice-bowl meal is served—wider and deeper than your standard-issue Japanese rice bowl, since it needs enough extra volume to accommodate both the rice and the non-rice portion of the meal. You’re likely already familiar with some of the more famous donburi, like gyudon, katsudon, and oyakodon (which mean, respectively, “beef bowl,” “cutlet bowl,” and, disturbingly, “mother and child bowl”), but even if you aren’t, the appeal of putting tasty stuff on top of rice and eating it all out of one round-bottomed container probably isn’t lost on you. Again, it’s convenient and, if everything is prepared well, delicious.

This guide and the accompanying recipes skew Japanese (because I’m skewed Japanese!), but there isn’t really any reason to limit yourself to ingredients out of the Japanese pantry. That being said, Japanese grocery stores, like Korean, Chinese, and other Asian-cuisine-focused grocery stores, are stocked with a wide variety of prepared food items designed to be eaten with rice. They can be a particularly valuable resource for small and tasty staples that can round out and diversify whatever you decided to put on top of your rice. Beyond that, you can also shop elsewhere (including online) for most, if not all, of the varied prepared products from across the world that are good on rice.

The Rules of the Rice-Bowl Road

Rule 1: The Rice Rules

First and foremost, a rice bowl is all about the rice. Much as with a Japanese breakfast, the rice makes up the bulk of the meal, and everything in the bowl that isn’t rice is meant to be eaten with it. This means that you want a good amount of rice in the bowl—about a cup and a half of cooked rice per serving—and it also means that you want to cook the rice well (take a look at my rice cooker review, which is the easiest way to get consistently great rice with no effort).

Rule 2: Limit Topping Portions but Season Them Well

Second, since the rice is the star, you don’t want to overload it with a mountain of toppings. Still, the food that you do add needs to be seasoned aggressively enough to compensate for the rice’s relative blandness. Whereas a typical American portion of something like, say, a steak, weighs about eight ounces, you’ll want to use only about half that for a rice bowl, and you’ll want to find ways to flavor it beyond salting the steak’s surface alone. A proper showering of salt may be all a seared steak needs, but that’s not going to cut it on a mound of plain rice.

Rule 3: Chop, Chop, Chop

Everything on top of the rice should be cut into bite-size pieces. Whether you plan on eating your rice bowl with a spoon, fork, or chopsticks, you don’t want large slabs of meat or vegetables that will require any kind of cutting.

Rule 4: Texture and Flavor Variety Are Key

Every rice bowl needs to be varied in both texture and flavor. Katsudon (fried pork cutlet with egg over rice) is a great example: you have chewy meat encased in a highly seasoned fried breadcrumb exterior, the tender and silky egg, strands of just-cooked onion that still have a remnant of bite, all of it dressed with a sauce that is both sweet and savory. And, for a final, optional bit of texture/flavor contrast, you can add some crisp pickled vegetables, like pickled ginger strips.

In general, think about combining ingredients that can add the following:

  • Heft: This will likely be the featured player in your rice bowl, whether it’s a portion of meat, cubes of tofu, or a hearty vegetable that can take center stage, like eggplant.
  • Umami: Many ingredients can add savory depth to your rice bowl. Meat automatically will, especially if you brown it well and make a sauce from it. Beyond that, seaweed, mushrooms, and fermented foods (anything from miso and soy sauce to lacto-fermented pickles and funky shrimp paste) will deliver a wallop of satisfying flavor.
  • Acidity: Pickles, whether vinegar-based or fermented, are one of your key players here, but even a squeeze of lemon juice can do the trick.
  • Heat: Fresh chilies, chili pastes, chili flakes and powders all work for adding anywhere from a subtle background warmth to an all-out fiery assault. It’s up to you how far you want to go. Horseradish, wasabi, and mustard are also great choices, delivering that nose-burning sensation we all love with a grimace.
  • Freshness: Thinly sliced scallions, fresh herbs, finely minced raw vegetables, even a dose of raw minced ginger or garlic can bring a breath or blast of freshness to the bowl.

Rule 5: Control Your Sauce

A flavorful sauce is almost always needed in a rice bowl: It coats your toppings and seeps down into the rice, uniting the two. But you don’t want your rice swimming in it. This is both a flavor and a texture issue because too much wet sauce means you’ll end up with overly seasoned, soupy rice. One good trick for ensuring your sauce doesn’t pool in the bottom of the bowl, aside from using an appropriate amount, is to employ some kind of thickener, like cornstarch. When it’s more viscous, the sauce will cling to the toppings more and glaze the top layer of rice, but it won’t run down and saturate everything.

Rule 6: Quick and Easy Are the Name of the Rice-Bowl Game

A rice bowl has to be quick and easy to put together. I suppose it doesn’t have to be, but part of a rice bowl’s appeal as a home-cooked meal is that it’s not going to be a heavy lift, whether you’re making it for lunch or you’re doing it for a weeknight dinner. This is where having a store of tasty stuff in your pantry really helps, but it’s also why rice bowls are an ideal way to use up leftovers. Have some broiled eggplant lying around? Overstocked on pickles? Or maybe you’ve got a leftover stir-fry or some mapo tofu from the takeout spot. All of these things can be used to make a very satisfying rice bowl in no time.

Rule 7: Construct Consciously

Even with all the other elements in place, true rice-bowl success requires considered construction. Exactly how this works depends on the ingredients, but in general, it’s worth thinking about which ingredients you want to ensure get all over the rice so that they can mix in evenly as you eat and which ones you don’t. That frequently means distributing very small ingredients like shredded nori or very finely minced pickles all over the rice, and spooning a bit of sauce (but not too much) all over. Larger pieces of vegetable and protein can be piled on more artfully and then glazed with a bit more sauce.

Anything particularly strong-flavored or pungent, like pickled ginger or hot mustard, is often best left in a small, contained clump so that the diner can choose exactly how much to get in each bite.

Get bowl recipes at Seious Eat . . . . .