Rice is the main staple for the Japanese. It accompanies just about every meal, whether it be served plain in a bowl, flavoured and fried, steamed with assorted ingredients, or vinegared and molded for sushi.
Although rice was introduced to the Japanese diet relatively late in comparison to other nations, it replaced seeds and nuts as a staple sometime in 300B.C., during the Jomon era. Before that, rice had already been a staple in other nations, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Phillipines, and parts of China, for several thousands of years. The plant was believed to have been brought into Japan through South Korea or from China, into the southern part of Japan (most likely in the Kyushu region).
The Chinese character for rice is a combination of two 8’s, for 88. The ideogram represents the number of times one would have to attend a rice plant to get 1 grain of rice. From then onwards to the early 20th century, it remained a luxury item not readily consumed by the majority, as it gradually moved upwards into the main island of Honshu, finally arriving in the northern part of the country, Hokkaido, in the late eighteenth century. A type of rice plant resistant to cold was developed sometime in the 19th century, thereby allowing inhabitants of the colder northern regions of Japan to cultivate their own crop.
The Japanese have declared rice to be extremely valuable. Not only because it guarantees to satiate hunger in every meal, but mythically, the first emperor was a rice farmer, and rice cultivation was believed to be a gift from heaven.
Its production is also labour intensive, and a certain respect is given to the hard life of a farmer. So make sure you eat every last grain of rice in your bowl or on your plate!
Some Technical Stuff
The rice grain is the fruit of a grass, much like wheat. In Latin, rice is called oryza sativa. There are three types of rice: indica, japonica and javanica. Japanese style medium grain rice falls in the category of japonica.
Generally, the Japanese eat their rice with the bran removed, consuming only the white endosperm of the grain. This endosperm is rich in two types of starch. Amylose and amylopectin produce the stickiness in the rice.
Resistant starch, a compacted chain of starch molecules, acts as fibre in the system, cleansing the colon.
Rice is a great source of B vitamins. Thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and pyridoxine all help the body to convert nutrients into energy and help the skin, eyes and central nervous system to function properly. It is also a source of folic acid, which contributes to the construction of DNA and hemaglobin.
Other nutrional properties of rice include minerals such as phosphorous, zinc, selenium, copper and iodine.
It takes about 1 to 2 days for the body to break down the strach from rice into glycogen, also known as fuel for the muscles. Perhaps it is for this reason that the starch from rice is promoted as the food for athletes requiring stamina.
As for the rest of the rice plant, each part is used for a different purpose. The bran is used as animal feed or in cereal for fibre. The hull, removed by a machine comprised of rubber rollers, is burned for electrical power or to even make fabric. And finally the straw can be used to make mats or other woven products.
If you ever take a ride through the outskirts of a city, you will see a number of small rice fields. It is especially beautiful to see in the summer, when the fields are a luxurious green.
Rice fields are submerged in water, preventing weeds from growing. The water also insulates the plants from severities in temperature. Because of its need for good irrigation, rice fields thrive in areas of high rainfall and humidity.
There are three main varieties available in Japan. Unpolished rice is called genmai, partially unpolished is haigamai, and polished rice is seihakumai. Seihakumai is the most popular type, pure white but less nutritious than the other types.
For desserts and special dishes, mochigome is steamed. This is a short grain rice that is very sticky and starchy.
An alternative to Japanese rice grown in Japan is Californian grown rice. Especially in North America, rice from this state is much cheaper, though the quality is only slightly comprimised.
Korean rice is also similar to Japanese rice.
It is important that when you eat Japanese food, you use medium grain rice from the regions mentioned. It may sound snobby, but you’ll soon learn to appreciate it the next time you have Japanese food!