If you’ve actually got a taste for Japanese-style short-grain white rice, here’s what years of experimentation have taught Akemi and I: Most of what you find in a US West Coast supermarket is junk.
The best readily-available rice on the West Coast is Lundberg Organic Sushi rice (also sold in bulk), but even that is only decent. If, however, you can find a well-stocked Asian market, Tamanishiki (comes in a yellow bag) is the best stuff—not going to stand up to the best stuff in Japan, but it’s even up to snuff by Japanese standards (H-mart, a Korean supermarket chain with locations all over the US, carries it, for example). It will also run you about $25 for a 15-pound bag, and is as far as I’ve seen the most expensive of the common high-end brands. You get what you pay for, I guess. (You can order a bag through Amazon, amusingly, although shipping will run you $17: Tamanishiki, 15 lbs.)
Also keep your eye out for “New Crop” stickers—the bag gets those when it’s fresh and starchier, which is to say better by Japanese standards.
If you’re looking for a step up even from that, I have seen, in San Francisco’s small Japanese district, several house-brand, small-bag organic versions of more common brands. That’s the only place I ever saw them, and I didn’t try one because they were twice the price of anything else and the penny pincher in the family vetoed it.
Rice quality is a touchy subject among Japanese and aficionados of Japanese food. Up through meeting Akemi, I was under the impression that rice was rice. It took a few years of demonstration otherwise before I eventually developed my taste to the point that not only was long-grain white rice entirely unpalatable (dry and bland) unless it’s being fried or otherwise seasoned, I could tell the difference between low, medium, and high-quality short-grain (aka Calrose), Japanese-style rice. Japanese people, of course, have been doing the same thing since birth, so their pickiness is that much worse. I’ve sampled a pretty wide range of quality, including the privilege of a small annual bag of fresh, hand-picked, farmers’ special straight from the fields in Japan, on account of there being some old-timer rice farmers in the extended family—now that is good stuff.
On the plus side, I can now properly appreciate a super-premium product like that on a more-than-conceptual level. On the minus, I can no longer stand “cheap” rice, into which category a surprising amount of Asian restaurant rice falls. Oh well; thus is the price of being a connoisseur/food snob.
Pro tips: The biggest sign of quality in white rice is how it tastes on the second day; the better the rice, the fresher it seems when reheated. Also, never refrigerate cooked rice—a chemical reaction occurs that turns it into a bowl of tiny rocks. Surprisingly, though, it will keep for at least a day, probably two or three, out of the fridge, so long as your house isn’t too warm; freezing it also works quite well. When reheating rice (particularly if it’s been frozen), sprinkle a bit of water on it, cover, and microwave—this basically re-cooks it to restore the texture to a pretty good approximation of when it was fresh. It won’t help much with refrigerated rice, but it’s better than throwing it out.
The easiest way to cook rice is to get a standalone electric rice cooker. The fanciest Japanese ones use all manner of crazy technology—fuzzy logic control schemes, inductive heating, triple-Teflon-coated bowls, and Lord knows what else—and of course have a price to match (not unusual to see them costing into the $200 range). That’s all fine and dandy, but really, the budget $20 crock-pot-style cookers at your local K-Mart will get the job done with a minimum of hassle. At worst they’re likely to burn a little of the rice to the bottom.
Any rice cooker will also come with a measuring cup and have markings on the side so that you can easily determine how much water to put in for a given number of cups of rice. This is probably obvious, but keep in mind that one dry cup of rice expands into a considerably larger amount of cooked rice—about three times as much. (Interestingly, “rice cooker cups” used when measuring dry rice are generally standardized at 180ml, which is smaller than both a US cup, which is 240ml, and a Japanese cup, which is 200ml; this is a leftover of an archaic unit of Japanese measurement, Gou. The only other thing now measured in that unit is sake. Fortunately, if the water level marks on a rice cooker are designed for these cups, it will always include a properly-sized measuring cup.)
A few cooking tips: While you don’t need to wash rice, the Japanese almost always do—at least two rinses in my family. With less-fresh rice—which is to say anything not labeled “New Crop”—it’ll come out better if you let it sit in the water for about 45 minutes before you start it cooking. You probably also want to add a little more water than the rice cooker tells you to, or it may be on the firm side.
Incidentally, don’t take this to mean we don’t appreciate brown rice. Whatever culinary purpose white rice serves, brown rice (which hasn’t had the outer shell removed) is drastically healthier than white. Indeed, you can very nearly live on brown rice, while white rice—as Japanese sailors discovered the hard way in centuries past—lacks several essential nutrients. Countless men in the Japanese Navy died from Beriberi, a neurological disease with a funny name that’s a lot better known in Japan than elsewhere for exactly this reason—it’s caused by thiamine deficiency, which could have been prevented by eating whole rice instead of processed white stuff. The funny name isn’t Japanese by the way—it’s called Kakke in Japanese.
In fact, if you make onigiri—rice balls—with a 50/50 mix of short grain brown rice and white rice, they have an appealingly firm texture and are, if anything, even tastier. At worst, they’re unquestionably healthier than straight white.