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Rice - Small Grain with Great Significance

Rice - Small Grain with Great Significance

When you hear the term "Japanese food," you might immediately think of rice. Rightly so: Indeed, it seems to be the staple food in Japanese cuisine, where rice comes in many different varieties, preparation methods, and dishes. Aesthetic considerations are highly valued in the selection of rice varieties, and this grain symbolizes strength, beauty, as well as a healthy and happy life. But rice is not just a food; for over 3000 years, it has been a crucial element of Japanese culture, shaped by rice cultivation.

Valuable raw material

When buying rice in a Japanese supermarket, you might find yourself standing in front of the shelf in amazement – because a kilogram of rice will likely cost no less than 500 Yen (approximately 4.40 Euros). Why is it so expensive, considering the vast rice fields that line the Japanese landscape? This is because the import of rice is legally prohibited in Japan to support local agriculture. However, with a relatively high population density on the islands (an average of 337 inhabitants per square kilometer – compared to 230 in Germany), it becomes challenging to supply everyone with an abundance of rice, especially as the available land decreases. Therefore, economically speaking, rice is considered a luxury item in Japan.

While rice was likely cultivated in Japan around 1000 BC, providing sustenance to many residents, the word for cooked rice in Japanese, gohan, can also mean "meal." However, until the Edo period, which began in 1603, not everyone could likely afford to eat rice daily. In mountainous or cold northern regions, it was initially technically challenging to cultivate rice. Rice served as a form of currency, and possessing a large quantity of this valuable grain was a status symbol. Consequently, leaving food on the plate is still considered impolite in Japan, unlike in China.

Today, rice is not only the world's most important staple crop but also the one with the greatest variety of strains. It's no wonder that rice in Japan differs significantly from what we are familiar with.

harvested rice in hand
Rice in a bowl

Edible cultural assets

The rural tradition of rice cultivation is reflected in festivals when the planting of the first rice seed is celebrated in May, and the harvest is celebrated in October and November. Additionally, the Japanese language is rich in proverbs centered around rice, such as "pouring water over one's own rice field" for selfish behavior. There is a specific rice dish for every occasion: for example, at weddings, people prepare Sekihan, red rice with Azuki beans. The famous Japanese lunchbox, Bentō, is incomplete without rice balls, known as Onigiri, which come in various shapes. These popular Japanese snacks can also be wrapped in seaweed, allowing creativity in filling and sprinkling.

For Japanese, rice is not only for eating: traditionally, it is also used for sake, Tatami mats, bookbinding, and even in kimono production. Although only 3.5% of the population is engaged in agriculture today (compared to 80% in the 19th century), rice still defines the Japanese self-image. A Japanese household must have a rice bowl set: each family member has their own rice bowl, along with their pair of chopsticks.

Variety of Japanese rice varieties

Most important in Japan is the Japonica, or short-grain rice. What sets it apart is its sticky nature: long-grain rice, common in many other regions, is simply too dry for this purpose. Japanese rice is divided into the "regular" variety Uruchimai, and glutinous rice, Mochigome. Uruchimai forms the basis of many rice dishes, while Mochigome is used for various items, including Mochi, rice cakes with sweet fillings. Mochi has become an integral part of Japanese tradition, enjoyed especially during New Year celebrations, and today, it serves as the foundation for a variety of desserts such as cakes and parfaits.

Cooked rice in a wooden container
Cooked rice in a bowl

Koshihikari is a highly popular variety of Uruchimai, similar to what is available in other countries. At the same time, it is the most cultivated rice variety in Japan. Like Sasanishiki, it belongs to the high-quality and consequently more expensive variations. The demand for these two varieties in Japan demonstrates the importance placed on quality, even if it means consuming less rice.

When choosing rice, it's essential to know which variety is best suited for each rice recipe. In Japan, Sasanishiki is preferred for sushi, as it is slightly less sticky than Koshihikari. On the other hand, Koshihikari is commonly used as a side dish in rice bowls or in Onigiri.

Cooking rice like in Japan

Despite its everyday nature, cooking Uruchimai rice properly is an art. With a few simple tips, you can also prepare the perfect bowl of Japanese rice.

Pay attention to storage: Keep it as dark, dry, and cool as possible, and seal it airtight to preserve the flavor best. Before cooking, be sure to wash the rice. Use cold water to cover the rice and swirl it around with your hand. Repeat this process (approximately four times) until the water is almost clear. Don't worry; you don't need to achieve completely clear water. Drain the rice well afterward to remove any excess water.

Uruchimai rice doesn't require much water for cooking: One cup of rice needs one cup and two tablespoons of water. For drier rice, one cup of water is sufficient. To ensure more even cooking and fluffier rice, you can soak it in water for 10-30 minutes before cooking.

Now, seal the rice pot – preferably with a heavy lid to prevent steam from escaping – and bring the contents to a boil. Once you hear the water boiling, reduce the heat and cook the rice until it has absorbed all the water (about 10 minutes). Avoid opening the lid during cooking to maintain an even cooking temperature. Remove the rice from the heat and let it stand, covered, for another 10 minutes to achieve the right consistency. Done!

Sticky rice is prepared similarly, but it's best to let it soak overnight or at least two hours: the longer the soak, the shorter the cooking time. What sets it apart from regular rice is that perfect Mochigome is steamed, not boiled.

Enjoy your rice the Japanese way with Umeboshi – pickled plums.

Rice bowls view in the store »
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