Rice in Japan

IMG_7080_1With rice being a staple of the Japanese diet for hundreds of years, to the point where it was the basis of currency in the Tokugawa era, there is a lot of importance and variety to rice in Japan. For much of Japan’s history rice was grown by peasants for the use of upper classes. Though they grew it, they lived on lesser grains and grasses and it became a food they might only eat on special occasions or festivals.

Today many Japanese eat rice with at least one meal every day. It is a versatile grain that is most often served very simply. The simplicity means that small variations in the preparation or type of rice can be very noticeable to someone who eats rice every day.

I’m not a rice expert. When I was a teacher, we had rice with most school lunches. But even then, rice was often mixed with barley or millet to help reduce costs. Still, after living in Japan for nearly six years there are a few things I’ve picked up.

Rice Basics

IMG_7084_1Japanese rice is usually short grain white rice (hakumai) meant for steaming. Most of the time after the husk is removed it is sold in 1-5kg bags. Since the rice is unwashed, you have to rinse the rice (traditionally 3 times) to remove excess dust and powder from the threshing. Most places have rice cookers (and they can be purchased much more cheaply here than in say the US) so actually cooking perfect rice is rather simple. As long as you get the water to rice ratio right.

For most rice, just less than a cup of grains to a cup of water should be the perfect amount. If you’re cooking for chahan you’ll want to add less water.

IMG_7084_1Many regions in Japan are known for their rice. The quality of the soil and abundance of water have a big (ie subtle) impact on the taste of the final product. After traveling to a few of these places, I can say that high quality rice can truly taste quite different from the regular cheap stuff.

Rice Isn’t that Simple

After 5 years eating rice, I thought myself well-adapted to it. Then my wife moved in. She came by ferry with her things packed into her car. I was surprised to find a giant bag of unhusked rice tucked in among the luggage. With relatives that harvest rice, they graciously sent along a giant bag (1 pyo =  65kg) to get us started… Unfortunately, the rice still had its husk and we don’t live in a place where rice is produced anymore.

Luckily, we found one shop on the island with a dehusker machine. For 500 yen we had the entire lot turned into rice ready to clean and steam. It was an interesting process I’ve included in the video below!

IMG_7097_1There was also 5 large bottles of genmai. Genmai is brown rice, which is essentially the same as white rice except it retains the bran and germ layers removed in white rice production. Brown rice is whole grain and healthier due to the extra vitamins that are lost in husking. Eating just brown rice is quite a different taste, so we cook most of our rice as 80% hakumai and 20% genmai with extra water to help offset the dry genmai flavor.

Genmai also spoils more quickly than white rice due to the remaining fibers and oils.