The Life-Changing Magic of Korean Microwavable Rice
Perfect rice is just 90 seconds away.
"Rice that tastes better than rice."
That’s the slogan for Hetbahn, a South Korean instant rice product that’s a cultural and economic mainstay for the country. Invented in 1996 by the Seoul-based company CJ Corporation, Hetbahn is so ubiquitous in Korea (over 300 million units were sold in 2017) that it’s become the word for “instant rice,” even when the product in question doesn’t come specifically from that particular brand.
Quick, convenient, and portable, Hetbahn was something my family always packed for trips to the beach or mountains, where we knew we wouldn’t have access to a full kitchen. As long as we had a microwave, perfect white rice was never more than a blitz away. Ideal for campers, solo cooks, and college students, Hetbahn is a convenient way to ensure that you always have your dinner bread-and-butter carbohydrate on hand, no matter what your situation.
There’s a reason the Korean word for “rice,” bap, also means food. As “bread” has come to represent sustenance in the English language (“breaking bread,” “putting bread on the table”), so too does the word for “rice” often stand in for the general concept of food, or a meal, in many countries — including China, Japan, and South Korea — where the staple grain is a predominant food source. For a country that relies so much on rice, it makes sense that South Korea would eventually develop the wonder product Hetbahn — and that it would sell this astronomically well.
The ingredients in a bowl of Hetbahn are pretty basic: just water, rice, and glucono delta-lactone (GDL), which is much less scary than it sounds. GDL is a completely plant-derived additive (vegan and dairy-free to boot) often used as a solidifying agent in tofu and as a leavening acid in baked goods. In Hetbahn, it’s used to lower the pH of the rice, which creates an acidic environment that stems bacterial growth. This rice then gets pressure-cooked in pristine factory conditions, including strict garment rules for factory workers (like top-to-bottom covers, headbands, and even mouth guards).
Perhaps the key to Hetbahn’s long shelf life is the packaging: The rice is cooked and vacuum-packed directly in the plastic containers themselves (which are said to be free of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or the ones that cause cancer). So with these two lines of defense (acid and heat), you can leave these airtight containers of cooked white rice, reportedly without a single preservative, at room temperature for nine months — or at least until you’re ready to pop them in the microwave.
Ninety seconds later: a single portion of perfectly cooked white rice. This is nothing like minute or frozen rice, mind you. The quality of Hetbahn rice is superior — fluffy, bouncy, and still full of chew — and tastes like you’ve just made a fresh pot (only in a fraction of the time). There’s a reason Hetbahn has become a predominant food source for South Koreans who rely on rice for their meals: It rocks.
As someone who lives alone, I pull out a Hetbahn whenever I don’t feel like making a whole pot of rice — not just waiting for it to cook, but committing to it as well. Because sometimes all you need is a single portion, and no more, to go with whatever you’re eating that night. A fried egg mixed with soy sauce and sesame oil tastes wonderful when stirred into a bowl of microwavable rice, not to mention it’s near instant.
As long as you have some banchan, or side dishes, in the fridge to go with the rice, you’re good to go. Think: kimchi, pickles, and soy sauce–marinated eggs. Or maybe you need a carbohydrate to go with your kalbi, bo ssam, or budae jjigae. Just microwave a Hetbahn.
Eric Kim is a food writer and recipe developer based in New York.