Among the staple foods that human beings eat to survive is rice. This is because rice is easier to cultivate and a small amount can already be considered filling to the stomach. All around the world, rice is being used to feed hundreds and thousands of people. On the other hand, in Japan, rice is more than just a food source; it is a part of their history, tradition, and culture. This is probably the reason why Japanese rice is among the best in the world.
The Beginning of Rice Culture in Japan
Many believe that the introduction of rice happened during the Yayoi period in Japan, specifically between the end of the Jōmon era and the beginning of the Yayoi era around the third century B.C. The knowledge of cultivating rice was believed to have been obtained from both Korea and China between 300 and 100 B.C. Researchers have found remains of rice from this period, specifically the short-grained japonica rice, a type of rice that was very common in the Korean Peninsula and the southern part of China. In fact, back in December of the year 1987, a rice ball was found in the town of Rokuseimachi in Ishikawa Prefecture that is estimated to be around 2000 years old. Cultivation of rice seems to have begun in the northern part of the Kyushu, an island just west of Japan. Due to the country’s particularly mild and humid climate, growing japonica rice in this land was great and later on spread to the other islands of Japan.
Since then, rice became the staple food of Japan. It not only became the main food of the Japanese people, along with other foods such as meat, fish, and vegetable, but also became a huge part of Japanese history because of how it was used and what it symbolized at that time. To be more specific, rice actually created a gap between the rich and the poor during the Yayoi period. Because rice can be stored, powerful leaders and families in Japan began building huge rice storages for themselves and caused the poor to live in strife. Rice economy in Japan during the Yayoi period was huge, but mainly only benefitted the rich and powerful. Because of the importance of rice, it was actually treated as money at a certain point in Japanese history, with people being able to pay taxes with rice.
There are still many speculations as to which time rice cultivation really began, but the importance and impact of the rice culture are absolutely still huge in Japan. What is definite is that rice cultivation is still being improved up to this day to better serve the Japanese people. Because of unwavering pursuit of improving the quality of rice, Japan is actually among the top rice producers in the world.
The Different Types of Japanese Rice: White, Brown, and Black Rice
Due to rice being the staple food of Japan, it is not surprising that they have developed rice into not just a single type, but numerous ones that are all great for a variety of food. There are basically four main types of rice in Japan, namely, white rice, brown rice, multigrain rice, and glutinous rice. These four types of rice are used for different purposes and vary depending on the grain, the polish, the texture, and the purpose.
First off is the white rice, also known as hakumai in Japanese. This type of rice is the most common rice cultivated and eaten in Japan. Hakumai consists of short grains and caters to the appetites of almost every Japanese. When cooked, the texture of hakumai is a bit sticky, but definitely delicious. This type of rice is polished so that the rice bran, or the hard outer skin of the grain, is removed. Generally, hakumai is considered as the foundation of cooking in Japan; hence, most meals served in restaurants and households are accompanied with white rice.
The second type of rice is the brown rice, also known as genmai in Japanese. Unlike white rice, brown rice remains unpolished. As its name suggests, the color of genmai is brown, though it is in the lighter shade and not as dark as black rice. Because it is not deemed as delicious as hakumai, it does not sell as well as white rice. On the other hand, brown and black rice are more nutritious compared to hakumai because its outer bran holds the vitamins and minerals. Today, due to the younger generation striving to be as healthy as possible, genmai is slowly gaining popularity among the youth.
On the other hand, as the name suggests, multigrain rice is composed of various grains of rice. It is mostly made of white rice, other grains and seeds are just added to provide more flavor and nutrients as well. There are different variants of multigrain rice depending on the type of grains added into white rice, such as mugi gohan and juhachikoku. Multigrain rice is not served in most restaurants, though usually health food restaurants and ryokan offer this.
Last, but certainly not the least, is glutinous rice, also known as mochigome in Japanese. Generally named as mocha rice or sticky rice, mochigome is the second most popular rice in Japan. Compared to white rice, mochigome is stickier in texture. Usually, it is prepared by pounding on the mochigome with other ingredients several times to make rice cakes and sweets. On the other hand, it can also be served as a rice dish like sekihan or glutinous rice with red beans in Japanese.
Rice Cultivation: Planting Rice in Japan
Rice, in general, is considered a tropical plant; this is why mainly tropical countries cultivate rice. In Japan, there have been several occasions wherein cultivating rice in certain locations in the country failed, such as in the northern part of the main island of the country, Honshu. Because of rice being the main food of the people, many citizens during that time suffered from a lack of food source. However, Japan continuously improved their rice cultivation to the point that rice is now no longer just a tropical plant; many varieties of rice today can now withstand cool summers, hence, the northern part of Honshu that used to struggle in rice cultivation is now among the top rice-growing places in the country.
Rice seasons in Japan vary depending on the different parts of the country. In Northern Japan, rice season is between either May or June to September or October. In Central Japan, rice season is between either April or May to August or October. Lastly, in Southern Japan, rice season is between either April or May to August or September. It is apparent that rice cultivation does not happen in just a certain part of Japan; almost every prefecture contains several farmlands that grow rice for the benefit of the residents in the country.
Farmlands in Japan are generally quite small with only a few hectares of land for rice cultivation. Despite the huge demand for rice in Japan because residents prefer domestic rice, there is still a shortage of farmlands. On the other hand, even though these farmlands are small, they still are able to meet the rice demand due to them being highly mechanized and cultivated. There are definitely many paddy fields surrounding the countryside. This is due to the fact that the government of Japan wants to maintain self-sufficiency, hence, supports the enhancement of rice cultivation in the country.
How to Cook Rice in A Rice Cooker and Other Recipes: From Sushi to Tamago Kake Gohan (Raw Egg on Rice)
Now there are several products that are based on Japanese rice such as rice vinegar used in preparation of sushi rice and as dressings, rice flour used for preparation of many Japanese sweets and rice crackers or senbei, rice bran or nuka in Japanese used in making a certain type of pickle known as nukazuke, and rice wine or nihonshu or sake in Japanese used by fermenting its main ingredient, rice, to create an alcoholic drink. However, because rice is a staple food, then, of course, it is mainly used as a dish to be eaten. Rice is essentially integrated into Japanese cooking and there are many recipes that come out of using rice.
The most basic recipe for cooking rice is by just cooking it in a rice cooker. In most meals, a bowl of rice with miso soup and pickles are served with other dishes. Simply just add a ratio of a cup of rice and water in a rice cooker after washing the rice at least once, then let it cook for a number of minutes, then you are good to go. Other great products of rice are rice cakes or mochi. Rice cakes are made by steaming and pounding glutinous rice. It is widely popular in Asia and Japan is among the countries that produce the best rice cakes in the world.
For those looking for just snacks, then maybe rice balls are for you. Rice balls, also known as onigiri, are basically just made up of rice wrapped in nori seaweed. These rice balls are available in almost all convenient stores nationwide, but can also be bought in restaurants and izakaya. If this is not filling enough, then maybe opt for a noodle shop that offers ramen; usually, ramen restaurants cook a pot of soup base that is flavorful and can complement not just noodles but also rice.
Japanese rice recipes will not be the same without sushi. Sushi is basically white rice with a vinegar flavor that comes in different kinds like nigirizushi, makizushi, and chirashizushi. The minute you pop these in your mouth, you will understand why many tourists visit Japan with the intention of eating sushi. As for those who are not familiar with other dishes, one may opt to try tamago kake gohan. Tamago kake gohan is basically white rice topped with raw egg. This is considered comfort food in Japan and is eaten with a few drops of soy sauce to add flavor. There is no need to worry when it comes to eating raw egg in Japan for fear of salmonella, as the eggs produced in the country are generally safe to be eaten raw.
Of course, there are still more food recipes that one can try with white rice in mind, such as chazuke, kayu, donburi, chahan, nukazuke, and omuraisu. Also, it is important to practice rice manners when eating in Japan. This includes picking up the rice bowl when eating rice instead of lowering one’s head to the table and finishing every single grain on the bowl and not leaving leftovers. Because the Japanese generally use chopsticks for picking up food, then pouring sauces or soup on rice is not common as this will loosen the stickiness of the rice, which will make it hard to use chopsticks on them. Lastly, it is imperative not to stick your chopsticks vertically on the rice as this is usually done in funerals and is considered disrespectful to Japanese people. There is definitely a lot more foods to enjoy in Japan, but their rice is just something else altogether. Not only is it the taste that makes it extraordinary, but also the scent and the texture. Because of the many variants to choose from, foodies will most certainly love to visit Japan and try every rice recipe there is to know just which one is the best.