Recently, a tragedy occurred in my household. As I was minutes away from finishing the stir fry I had unceremoniously thrown together after work, I realized that the rice cooker, despite its glowing red light that indicated it was cooking, was broken. The rice inside had puffed up slightly from the water, but it was still cold and hard. I wondered if there was something wrong with the outlet, so I moved the rice cooker to the other side of the kitchen, hopeful that it would click on as soon as it was plugged in. When it didn’t, I mourned my most-used kitchen appliance and poured the uncooked rice into a pot on the stove instead.
Although I’ve cooked rice on the stove plenty of times before, as someone who’s used to using a rice cooker, I forgot to keep checking on the rice until I detected a slight burning smell coming from the kitchen. I immediately removed the rice from the heat and waited for it to cool so I could assess the damage.
I got lucky. The tragedy of the broken rice cooker yielded a layer of perfectly crunchy scorched rice stuck to the bottom of the pot; I stuck my finger under a corner of the burnt layer and pulled it off in one large chunk. After letting the top layer of still-moist rice dry out a bit in the fridge, I reheated the crisped carb disc and drizzled it with chili crisp and sprinkled it with salt and chopped scallions. After cutting it into rectangles, I took my first bite of the snack, feeling suddenly grateful that my broken rice cooker and questionable cooking skills could yield such delicious results.
Of course, I’m not the first one to discover the beauty of scorched rice—cuisines from around the world boast beloved scorched rice dishes. Persian tahdig requires skilled precision to perfectly scorch rice at the bottom of a pan which is then carefully flipped to reveal a glowing golden crust of rice. In Ghana, scorched rice is called kanzo, a crunchy and budget-friendly delight. In Korea, nurungji is made by boiling rice over high heat, and in Puerto Rico, diners enjoy scorched rice in the form of pegao, also called concón in the neighboring Dominican Republic.
These and countless other cultures enjoy some form of crispy scorched rice. Perhaps the combination of its neutral flavor and complex texture is part of the appeal. Oftentimes, this kind of rice isn’t crispy all the way through but just has a slight crunch while retaining some of its softness, ultimately yielding a slightly chewy texture. To me, though, part of the beauty of scorched rice goes beyond the sensory pleasures it promises.
Although scorched rice can certainly be made intentionally, it’s often the result of the same mistake I made the day my rice cooker broke. Someone put some rice on the stove, got distracted and forgot to check on it before it developed a slightly burnt crust. Maybe they were calling their internet company about their disconnected WiFi, or trying to feed the baby while the toddler threw a temper tantrum, or laughing too loudly with their friends over a third glass of wine. Life happened, inconveniently, messily, like it always does, and whoever was manning the stove made a mistake, like we always do. But the result of that mistake isn’t a kitchen fire or a pan so badly burnt it will have to be trashed; it’s a delicacy.
My life, like most people’s, is little more than a series of mistakes, embarrassments and fumblings interspersed with random instances of luck that seem to function like glue, somehow saving the fragile, unwieldy structure from collapse. Some of these mistakes will keep me up at night, suspended in a mental plasma of self-loathing, until I force myself to fall asleep to put out the smolder of decade-old shame. Others, though, have been luckier, like the poorly booked ticket that led me to a bar where a stranger-turned-friend offered me a ticket to see one of my favorite artists the very next night.
The mistake of scorched rice, of course, fits into the second category, proof that life’s blunders can be responsible for just as much joy as they are for pain. A life perfectly planned and led might reliably yield the fluffy, al dente rice we’re all aiming for, but it will never lead to the joyful culinary gaffe that scorched rice can be. In the absence of my rice cooker, I’ve been reminded of how often I make mistakes in the kitchen without basic consumer technology to keep me afloat. But it’s also made me realize that some of the best things in my life, both in the kitchen and in my life, are the result of such mistakes.
I’m still buying a new rice cooker, though.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.