The ubiquitous rice cooker inspired French chef Olivier Rodriguez to conjure up a unique way of enjoying rice.
His chic two-year-old restaurant in Tokyo, & ecle, is famed for its "Coulicious" cuisine.
A portmanteau of the words coulis and delicious, Coulicious is a concept where rice is topped with meat and vegetables and served in a pool of coulis, or thick pureed vegetable or fruit-based sauces.
The wholesome hybrid dish - a cross between cereal and risotto - features coulis made from ingredients such as pumpkin, watercress and carrot. Chef Rodriguez also minimises the use of cream and butter in his dishes.
The gastronomic brainwave was sparked when the 45-year-old Frenchman came across a rice cooker that his Japanese wife uses at home. Coupled with his love for grain-based dishes, this inspired him to make Japanese rice the star of his cuisine. Doing this, he felt, would also enable him to capitalise on Japanese diners' love for the grain.
"They have been eating rice from the time they were young, so I want them to discover a new way of enjoying the flavours of rice," he says. "Like Singapore, Tokyo has a competitive dining scene. Instead of creating a speciality dish, I needed to develop my category of food."
The Coulicious dishes are served in elongated grain-shaped bowls which, he says, allow diners to scoop the rice up with a judicious amount of coulis.
Black rice with white asparagus coulis, sauteed asparagus and squid
For the rice
50g onions, chopped 50g olive oil 30g unsalted butter 150g black rice, soaked overnight 150g Japanese white rice 3g squid ink 4g salt 300g chicken broth
For the white asparagus coulis
50g onions, chopped 50g olive oil 500g white asparagus, sliced diagonally to 5mm thickness 400g chicken both 100g cooked Japanese white rice 50g cream Salt to taste
For the topping
300g white asparagus, sliced diagonally 200g squid, sliced 50g olive oil Salt to taste Parsley leaves to garnish
1. For the rice: In a frying pan set over low heat, saute the onions in olive oil for five to 10 minutes until translucent.
2. Add the sauteed onions and all the other rice ingredients into a Japanese rice cooker. Cook it under the "brown rice mode".
3. When the rice is cooked, mix it gently, then set the rice cooker to "warm mode".
4. For the white asparagus coulis: In a frying pan set over low heat, saute the onions in olive oil for five to 10 minutes until translucent.
5. Add the asparagus and saute for 10 minutes.
6. Add the chicken broth and cooked white rice and stir-fry the mixture for 30 minutes.
7. Blend the mixture in an electric blender. Add cream and salt to taste and continue blending the mixture until it turns into a thick puree.
8. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve, then pour the coulis into a squeeze bottle.
9. For the topping: In a frying pan set over high heat, saute the asparagus and squid in olive oil for up to three minutes. Add salt to taste.
10. To assemble the dish, set the black rice in the middle of a plate, then pour the white asparagus coulis around the rice. Top it off with the sauteed squid and white asparagus, then garnish with parsley leaves.
"The flavours of the coulis get enhanced when it is macerated with the rice, which creates a nice sensation in the mouth," he adds.
Signature Coulicious dishes include spice-infused rice with beet coulis, topped with beets; and black rice with white asparagus coulis, sauteed asparagus and squid, for which he shares the recipe here (see box).
These dishes were served at a three-day guest stint at The Knolls, a Mediterranean restaurant in Capella Singapore hotel in Sentosa.
For the stint, which ended yesterday, chef Rodriguez transplanted 70 per cent of his menu here. Apart from the Coulicious dishes, he also served appetisers such as steamed apple and foie gras with dried fruit compote and cardamom-flavoured apple coulis.
He also whipped up mains such as cumin-crusted turbot fillet with chickpea crepe and eggplant coulis, and desserts such as passionfruit jelly served with dark chocolate foam and citrus-flavoured banana coulis.
On his love affair with coulis, he says: "It is used as a sauce that links all the ingredients on the plate together in a visually appealing way."
& ecle is an abbreviation of the word eclectic, which sums up the diverse spectrum of the menu's seasonal ingredients, sourced from farms across Japan.
Root vegetables such as carrots and turnips are from Chiba prefecture, while Swiss chard and zucchini are from Nagano prefecture. Seafood including squid and puffer fish are harvested from Hakodate harbour in Hokkaido.
Rice-wise, he offers nine varieties, including black, red, green and white rice.
"I love that there are so many kinds of rice in Japan which have interesting textures and flavours, such as Kamiakarai from Ibaraki prefecture - a brown rice that is tender and so flavourful that I can cook it without much spices."
Chef Rodriguez's background in Mediterranean cooking spans 27 years, which makes it natural that influences from the cuisine are peppered throughout his menu.
Provencal beef stew is reinterpreted as black olive-infused rice topped with red wine-stewed beef cheek in carrot coulis.
He often uses produce commonly found in Mediterranean meals, such as white asparagus, pumpkin and fennel.
Eating was a large part of his childhood.
He grew up in a "gastronomic atmosphere" in Toulouse, France, with his family throwing regular food- and wine-laden house parties.
After completing high school in Nice, he found himself at a crossroads over choosing a career.
"I decided to be a chef as eating is my passion - so it doesn't feel like a job - and I wanted to travel."
He started his culinary journey at the age of 18, with cooking stints at two-Michelin-starred Le Chantecler in Nice and three-Michelinstarred Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence, Italy.
In 2000, he moved to Japan to head Enoteca Pinchiorri's outpost in Ginza, Tokyo. Five years later, he was appointed head chef at the then one-Michelin-starred French fine-dining restaurant Signature at Mandarin Oriental Tokyo.
He is married to a 43-year-old bank manager and they have two daughters aged eight and 21/2.
Despite his background, his days of "rigid fine dining" are over, he says. He is going for the "neo bistro" approach at his restaurant, which means serving food in a casual setting, with more accessible prices.
He adds: "I want to create a friendlier and warm environment, like throwing house parties, but being serious about our food."
Business at & ecle has been brisk, with regulars making up more than 60 per cent of his customers.
"This means my staff and I need not explain what Coulicious is all the time," he jokes.
Next up on his plate is a new Coulicious-themed restaurant in Tokyo by the end of this year.
He quips: "By using the rice cooker, I can continue to create new recipes in a pot. The possibilities for the Coulicious cuisine are endless."