Everything you ever wanted to know about Japanese rice
Rice is central to Japanese cuisine. But how much do you know about the growing process and the many varieties of this staple ingredient?
Rice is at the heart of Japanese cuisine and is a major part of Japanese food culture and diet, accounting for nearly a quarter of the daily caloric intake for the average person. Even the Japanese word for meals—gohan—means “rice” as well as “meal of any sort.” Japan is in the top 10 producers of rice in the world, and rice is the most important crop that is cultivated in the country. There are over 2 million farms in Japan that plant rice on a yearly basis, and rice has been planted and cultivated in Japan for over 2,000 years. The taste and texture of Japanese rice vary quite greatly, depending on what region in Japan it is grown in as well as factors such as level of polishing and refinement.
Uruchimai rice, a short-grain translucent rice, is the most commonly eaten rice for most meals. Outside of Japan, uruchimai is often labelled as “sushi rice.” Uruchimai is sticky in texture, mildly sweet (the degree of stickiness and sweetness vary depending on where it is grown) and is also the rice used to make most sake and another popular alcoholic beverage, shochu. Mochigome, glutinous rice, is used to make mochi (traditional sticky rice cakes made by grinding mochigome into a flour called mochiko) as well as sekihan (a festive rice and red bean dish), and traditional snacks like senbei, a Japanese rice cracker often eaten with green tea. Like uruchimai, mochigome is also short-grain, but its grains are shorter, rounder and more opaque. When cooked, mochigome is even stickier and chewier than the ordinary Japanese rice. Mochigome is known as glutinous rice because of its very sticky texture rather than anything to do with containing gluten (which it does not).
All rice starts off as genmai, which is an unpolished kernel of rice in its most natural state. Outside of Japan, rice in its most natural state is commonly referred to as brown rice. However, for the most part, the Japanese prefer for the outer shell, haiga, as well as the bran, nuka, to be removed. Unless you are purchasing musenmai (no-rinse rice), there is still a sticky outer skin on rice that needs to be washed off and rinsed before cooking. As you will read later, the more a rice is polished (brown rice is unpolished; white rice has been polished, to varying degrees), the less nutritious it is as more nutrients are washed away in the polishing process.
Japanese rice fields are a common sight in the countryside of Japan, from coast to coast. Some of these rice fields, especially the terraced fields (tanada), will take your breath away with their magnificent beauty. Terraced rice fields can be found beside oceans, built on mountains or valleys using mud and stones. Some of the most beautiful rice field terraces in Japan are: Shiroyone Senmaida in Ishikawa, which is right near the sea and where the terraced fields are illuminated with coloured lights between October and March; Hoshitouge-no-Tanada in Niigata, with its mystical foggy fields; Oyama Senmaida in Chiba, the closest rice field to Tokyo; Maruyama Senmaida in Mie, which is one of the most stunning terraced fields in all of Japan, with over 1,000 sections over a 160-metre-high slope; and Hamanoura Senmaida in Saga, with an amazing view of the ocean lying past the rice fields.
Terraced rice fields are built along the slope of a mountain or valley in order to maximize how much rice can be grown. Whether in terraces or in flat, level fields, rice paddies are commonly seen in the countryside of Japan, from coast to coast.
Held on the first Sunday of June, the Mibu rice-planting festival in Hiroshima is one of the many harvest festivals in Japan.
Types of Japanese rice
If you have ever perused a grocery store shelf looking to buy rice, you will know that there are many options to choose from.
Almost all of the rice used for cooking in Japanese cuisine can be placed into two general categories—uruchimai and mochigome. (The left one is uruchimai and the right one is mochigome)
Uruchimai, short- grain white rice, is the most popular type of Japanese rice, and is the rice most often consumed at everyday meals. Uruchimai is sticky and creamy in consistency, with koshihikari and hitomebore being two of the most popular varieties.
Mochigome is Japanese sticky rice, alternatively known as glutinous Japanese rice or sweet Japanese rice. Mochigome can be made into mochi by hammering it with a mallet. Mochi, a sticky rice cake, is a key ingredient in many Japanese dishes, particularly desserts.
Level of polishing:
Rice looks, tastes and feels di erent dependingon the extent of polishing. Rice that has been cleaned with husks removed but without any further polishing is referred to as genmai, “unpolished” or “brown” rice. In this state, rice is full of nutrients, vitamins, minerals and protein, and is very healthy to eat. The more a rice is “polished” (as is all white rice), the less nutritious it is for you.
Brands and regions
Although rice is grown around the country, its flavours differ depending on the variety and area. Here are some of the major rice-producing regions of Japan and their popular brands.
Koshihikari rice is one of the most popular varieties of rice grown in Japan. This rice from the snowy mountains of Niigata is said to be some of the best tasting in all of Japan, known for being springy, sticky and aromatic.
Hitomebore – Miyagi
Somewhat glossy, somewhat sticky, hitomebore rice from Miyagi has a soft and gentle flavour. Hitomebore is very popular amongst older generations of Japanese people as well as being one of the top choices for restaurants.
Akitakomachi – Akita
Akitakomachi rice has a springy consistency, lovely aroma and strong flavour. Because of its high levels of moisture, it is also delicious cold, making it an ideal choice for sushi and sashimi.
Yumepirika – Hokkaido
Yumepirika rice from Hokkaido is glossy when cooked and has a soft and springy texture. It is also delicious cold, making it the perfect rice for bento box lunches.
Tsuyahime – Yamagata
Tsuyahime means “glossy,” and true to the name this rice is very beautiful and glossy. Tsuyahime is sweet and mildly sticky, an ideal choice for simple dishes that really want to highlight the flavour of the rice.
How to cook that perfect rice (without a rice cooker)
When it comes to cooking Japanese rice, stick to the method here for consistently fantastic results, both in taste and texture.
1 Measure the uncooked rice and put it into a large bowl. Gently wash the rice in a circular motion and discard the water. Repeat this process about 3-4 times.
2 Let the rice soak in water for at least 30 minutes. You can leave it for up to half a day.
3 Transfer the rice into a sieve and drain completely. Let it dry for a bit.
4 Combine the rice and 1.1 times the rice’s volume of clean water (e.g., 1 cup of rice = 1.1 cups of water) in a heavy-bottom pot. A cast-iron pot ordonabe (a clay pot) will do the best job.
5 With the lid on, heat the pot over medium-low to bring it to a boil. Lower the heat a bit, then cook for seven minutes or until the water is almost completely absorbed (take a quick peek to check!).
6 Turn off the heat, leaving the lid on. Let rest for 10–20 minutes.
7 Stir and fluff the rice with a rice paddle when it’s done.
Even though Japanese rice is processed (i.e., the germ and bran have been removed), the kernels are still covered in a sticky coating, hada nuka, the “skin bran,” which needs to be taken off before cooking. In traditional methods of cooking rice, this sticky coating is rinsed off through repeated washings with water; however, recently, new methods have been developed to remove this outer skin before the consumer buys the rice. The most common method for removal is known as “B.G.” or “bran grind” method, where dry kernels are tumbled in a tube for seven seconds to remove the shell. This rice is then sold as musenmai. An added bonus is that this method is much better for the environment than using water! Win-win!
Classic rice dishes
Now that you know more about Japanese rice, here are some classic dishes with rice as the main ingredient for you to try.
Onigiri, also known as “Japanese rice balls” (though they can be round or triangular in shape), are delectable (often homemade) snacks made using uruchimai rice that are filled with various tasty ingredients and wrapped in nori (seaweed). They are nutritious and convenient for a snack or meal on the go.
A simple and tasty snack, ochazuke is literally rice submerged in liquid with toppings. Most commonly, ochazuke is made by pouring ocha (green tea), dashi (broth) or hot water over cooked rice and then topping it with nori, salted salmon, Japanese pickles, salted and marinated pollock roe, scallions and wasabi.
Classical furikake-gohan is a rice dish that consists of rice sprinkled with furikake. Furikake is a Japanese condiment typically made from a mixture of dried and groundsh, sesame seeds, chopped seaweed, sugar and salt. Bonitoakes are sometimes added to the mixture for a stronger fish flavour.
Now this dish is one that requires the freshest of ingredients. Raw egg on rice begs for the highest-quality eggs you can find. Tamagokake-gohan is Japanese comfort food at its finest (and simplest!). Into a warm bowl of rice, break a raw egg, season with whatever your heart desires (most commonly soy sauce), then whip everything up with a pair of chopsticks until the egg is pale yellow and foamy.