What the Rice? Japanese Cuisine and Culture

For many Japanese people, a meal does not feel complete if there is no white rice in it. Japanese white rice is an essential part of the Japanese diet and a staple food, but it is also an important part of Japanese culture.

Rice is seen by western media in more traditional forms like within manga or anime, you can’t go a single season without seeing rice consumed. But what of rice in the modern day diet? Japan is no longer a country where 90% of the population is engaged in rice cultivation. Will rice retain its cultural importance?

In early autumn a pilgrimage of sorts takes place in Japan. People ride the bullet train from Tokyo, pass through a long tunnel in the mountains west of the capital and emerge in Niigata, one of the richest rice-growing regions in the country. They travel to see the harvest, which takes place as the leaves on the trees are turning red and the chestnuts start to fall.

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It is so important that rice was once a currency in Japan, with common people and warriors being paid with rice instead of money. Japanese white rice is short, soft and sticky, so it clumps together easily. It does not have a strong taste and it therefore balances other foods and brings out their flavours.

Rice is Japan’s most important crop, and has been cultivated across the country for over 2000 years. It is the primary staple food of the Japanese diet and of such fundamental importance to the Japanese culture that it was once used as currency.

The language of a culture provides clues to important concepts and values. This is true in the Japanese culture. The primacy of rice as a diet staple is echoed in the Japanese language. “Gohan” is both the word for “cooked rice” as well as “meal.” The use of gohan in Japanese is extended with prefixes to give us asagohan (breakfast), hirugohan (lunch), and bangohan (dinner). These multiple terms signal that it was almost impossible for most Japanese to think of a meal without rice.

A bowl of cooked rice is a central part of traditional Japanese meals, it has an excellent reputation for quality and safety. Most Japanese people, and some long term residents of Japan can tell you right away if rice is Japanese from the texture, taste and consistency. The following are some common forms of rice that can be found all over the country.

White Rice (Hakumai)

Japanese rice is short grain and becomes sticky when cooked. The majority of Japanese rice is polished to remove the hard outer skin (rice bran) and consumed as hakumai “white rice”. White rice is the foundation of Japanese cooking and is served with most meals.

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Brown Rice (Genmai)

Unpolished rice (genmai) is less commonly sold as it is not considered to be as delicious as white rice. However, it has been recently gaining popularity as a health food because it is more nutritious than white rice. The outer bran retains much of the vitamins and minerals that are removed by polishing.

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Multigrain Rice

Other grains and seeds may be added to white rice to add flavor and nutrients. One variation simply adds barley (resulting in mugi gohan), but more elaborate varieties may include more than a dozen different additions. Multigrain rice is usually called by the number of different grains that are added.

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Glutinous Rice (Mochigome)

Glutinous Rice, also known as Mochi rice or sticky rice, is the second most common variety of Japanese rice. When cooked it is even stickier than regular Japanese rice and is commonly pounded into rice cakes, made into sweets, or used in rice dishes such as sekihan (glutinous rice with red beans).

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Historically, rice has many links to various aspects of Japanese culture. For example, the Emperor became a “priest-king” early in Japanese history. Many of his priestly functions under the Shinto religion revolved around rice-growing and included rice products such as “Sake” (rice wine) and “Mochi” (rice cakes), as well as the actual grain and its stalks. Indeed, the previous Emperor Hirohito, right up to the time when he became seriously ill, tended a rice plot, as had previous emperors, on the Imperial grounds in Tokyo.

Furthermore, during the last September of his life, Emperor Hirohito inquired about the weather and actively worried about the crop. Tradition continues as Emperor Akihito blesses the rice crop, and his many coronation ceremonies involving rice and rice products underscore links to the emperor and to Shinto.

Rice fields are a common sight in the Japanese countryside and an image of nostalgia for many people. The fields start as flooded paddies in the early summer and turn into seas of green and gold waves as the rice grows and matures through the season. The crop of rice is then usually harvested in the fall, although some southern regions may plant more than one crop per year.

Some places famous for particularly nice rice patty landscapes include the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, Shodoshima Island in Kagawa Prefecture and the Echigo Tsumari region of Niigata Prefecture.

This awareness of time is closely associated with a rice-growing calendar that has helped to shape Japan’s identity since paddy fields were first dug from the landscape about 2,400 years ago. The Japanese take great pride in the quality, taste and stickiness of their rice.

After each harvest each farmer’s crop is checked by gruff inspectors with magnifying glasses screwed to their eyes. They shake 1,000 grains of rice into a saucer (the number that fit on the bottom), and count each imperfect one. Anything below grade two is considered unfit for the table, and, the price plummets accordingly.

So from all of this we can see that rice has played a massive role not only in shaping the cuisine but also the culture of Japan. It is then translated through to us in the west through various traditional forms of media like anime and manga enticing and engaging with audiences to become tempted and learn more.

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