お米 / Rice -The essence of Japanese flavour-
As summer draws to an end, autumn approaches, and in Japan this season is known as the season for harvest as well as your appetite. At this time of year, we want to eat lots of delicious things, but the starting point for any Japanese meal has to be rice. The more you learn about rice, the more delicious each meal becomes.
Rice stands alongside wheat and corn as the world’s three major grains. Contrary to popular belief however, although rice is such an integral part of Japanese culture and eating habits, there are other Asian countries which both produce and consume more per capita. Both in Japan and worldwide, there are many various ways to enjoy the delicious grain.
The History of Rice
It is believed that cultivating rice began about 10,000 years ago in China and then 3,000 years ago in Japan, during the Jōmon and Yayoi periods. Japan’s warm, humid weather is perfect for growing rice and its cultivation spread exponentially. Not only was it used as a source of food, but it was also used to fulfil many economical roles, becoming an indicator of the power held by the lords (land became valued by the amount of rice it produced, known as kokudaka-sei), as well as a currency used by farmers to pay taxes. This meant that farmers were not able to actually eat the rice themselves, and this continued right up until the Meiji period (1868-1912) when the currency used to trade became money. It was not until post-war times that rice became the staple diet of Japanese people.
Nowadays, rice is eaten all over the world and each year 685 million tonnes of rice is produced worldwide*. 90% of this is grown and consumed in Asia and the largest producers are China, India and Indonesia followed by Japan in tenth place.
*Source：FAOSTAT (December, 2009)
Rice & Japanese People
To Japanese people, rice is a fundamental part of daily life and holds a special place. Okome (rice) is a quintessential offering made to Shinto gods and is offered together with omiki (sake) and oshio (salt). It is believed that the summer and autumn festivals that take place all over Japan originate from the rituals of praying to the rice paddy gods for good crops and giving gratitude for good harvest.
The kanji character used to write rice is 米 and it is made up of the kanji for ‘eight’ (八), ‘ten’ (十), and ‘eight’ (八) again. ‘八十八’ (hachi jū hachi) literally means eighty eight. This character is used as it is said that inside the grain that takes eighty eight difficult tasks to produce, live eighty eight gods, and so the combination of these characters is used.
In Japan there is a saying, “Minoruhodo kōbewotareru inahokana” which literally translates to “The more fruit it bears, the heavier the head of rice droops” and means that the greater knowledge and morals a person has, the more humble they are. This just shows how deeply rooted rice is in Japanese customs and the heart of Japanese people.
All of the different types of rice grown worldwide can be split into two categories; short-medium grain and long grain rice.
•Japonica rice (Short-Medium grain)
Traditionally, all rice grown and consumed in Japan is of this variety. It is a round, oval shaped grain with high moisture content, and its stickiness makes it easy to eat with chopsticks. One characteristic is its glossy sheen. It is eaten slow-boiled or steamed and is often sold in Australia as ‘Sushi Rice’.
•Indica rice (Long grain)
This variety is longer with less stickiness and has a fluffier texture. It is commonly grown in countries including China, India, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia and is the most widely grown type of rice worldwide. Rather than slow-boiling this variety, it is boiled rapidly in water similarly to the way pasta is prepared. Indica rice is perfect for recipes such as pilaf and curries.
In Japan, a further division of japonica rice is made according to the amount of starch it contains, dividing it into ‘uruchimai’ and ‘mochigome’ varieties. Uruchimai contains approximately 20% amylase (an enzyme that breaks starch down into sugar) and 80% amylopectin (a type of glucose) and is the most commonly used rice in Japan. Mochigome, on the other hand, is very sticky as it only contains amylopectin and it is used to make o-mochi (pounded glutinous rice cakes) and o-sekihan (sticky steamed rice with red adzuki beans).
Further breakdown in varieties can be made depending on the processing the grain undertakes.
•Hakumai (White Rice)
The bran (known as nuka in Japanese) and rice germ (haiga) are removed from the brown rice (genmai). Although the bran and rice germ contain many vitamins and minerals, the plump texture and simple taste make it compliment many different dishes.
•Genmai (Brown Rice)
This is unpolished rice simply removed from the husk. (The process of polishing the bran from the genmai to make hakumai is called seimai in Japanese.) Although compared to hakumai, genmai contains many more vitamins, minerals and fibre and so is better for you health, it is not sticky and has a less appetising texture. To cook this variety, you need to use a pressure cooker or a rice cooker with a genmai cooking function.
This is germinated genmai and is far softer and sweeter than normal genmai, making it more delicious. It contains nutrients such as GABA which work to prevent high blood pressure and absorb neutral fats from our body.
This is hakumai which has had its bran powder removed, eliminating the need to wash the grains before cooking. In addition to saving water used in the home, it also makes it easier to prepare the rice. When you cook this variety, use a little more water than you would for normal hakumai.
•Kaorimai (Aromatic Rice)
This is long grain rice which has been given a special fragrance. This is a favoured variety in Southeast Asian countries and includes jasmine rice from Thailand and basmati rice from India. These are also commonly sold in Australia.
Japanese Rice Brands
In Japan, there are many brands of rice, each with their own special characteristics and flavours, all working to build an even richer rice culture.
Koshihikari is synonymous with delicious rice. Its flavour, fragrance, stickiness and glossy shine are all exemplary, making it a favoured choice in Japan.
This variety is right up there next to koshihikari when it comes to delicious rice. It has a slightly lighter flavour due to its reduced stickiness. Sasanishiki is perfect for making sushi rice.
This variety was crossbred from Koshihikari and other breads. Not only does it taste great, but the grains look great and have a strong stickiness. It is well known for being delicious even when it is cold.
This rice originates from Yamagata Prefecture which has an abundance of daylight and strong difference in daytime and night temperatures. Each grain has a good surface allowing for it to be cooked to perfection.
Rice really doesn’t make you fat
Your body burns the sugars contained in rice in preference to the fats in meat and dairy to produce energy, making it easily burnt off. Also, the large amounts of moisture in cooked rice make it a relatively low calorie food per serving. On top of that, plain rice is slow to digest and be absorbed which slows the secretion of the hormones in the body which produce fat.
One bowl of cooked rice is three rice plants
It takes around 60 to 70 grams of uncooked rice to make a 150g bowl of cooked rice. This is about 3,000 to 3,500 grains of rice. From one stem of rice in a paddy there are about 40 grains and one rice plant has about 25 stems. From that, it takes at least 3 rice plants to produce just one bowl of cooked rice.
Foods Made from Rice
Rice is used to make many different foods, and it offers some profound culinary delights.
O-mochi (Pounded Glutinous Rice Cakes)
This is a type of rice cake made from the above mentioned mochigome. Steamed mochigome is beaten in a mortar (usu) with a mallet (kine) and is a well known traditional sight in Japan.
Senbei (Japanese Rice Crackers)
Uruchimai (explained above) is steamed, beaten and spread out flat before being toasted to make senbei. They are often flavoured with soy sauce and other condiments.
Biifun (Rice Vermicelle) These are long thin noodles made from rice flour. They are commonly eaten in Southern China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia either in a soup or stir-fried. In Vietnam they are popular in phở, a Vietnamese noodle soup.
Treat rice with respect & don’t eat too much!
Photography assistance: LITTLE TOKYO