Japan is a culinarily eclectic place, with the country’s penchant for importing and adapting international food trends giving us such modern innovations as Pikachu Cherry Blossoms Afro Pancakes and cheddar cheese tempura. But one thing that’s been a constant for hundreds and hundreds of years is that rice is the foundation of the Japanese diet.
That doesn’t mean that the rice people in Japan eat today tastes the same as what their samurai-era ancestors ate, though. We recently found out about a place in Tokyo that sells rice with the flavor of the Edo period, the stretch of Japanese history from 1603 to 1868, corresponding to the reign of Japan’s last shogunate.
This Edo Rice (or Edomai, as it’s called in Japanese) is offered at Sumidaya Shoten, a rice shop in the Sumida Ward of Tokyo (which used to be called Edo before it became Japan’s official capital). However, Edo Rice doesn’t get its name from being grown in Tokyo, but from being prepared using the centuries-old style that was used for rice in the Edo period.
As the de facto seat of power in the day, Edo’s population needed more rice than could be grown nearby. Edo rice merchants would buy rice from around the country, have it shipped to Edo, carefully selecting the best regional varieties to blend together. Sumidaya Shoten follows this tradition with a resident rice connoisseur handling the selection, but the key link to the past is in how Edo Rice is polished.
In simple terms, “polishing” the rice involves buffing the kernels to remove their rough, outer layers. Nowadays, modern machinery makes it easy to remove as much of the outer layer as rice sellers want to, and removing more of it results in kernels with a bright white color that’s considered extra-appetizing in Japan.
▼ Modern-polished white rice
Back in the Edo period, though, rice millers had to rely on water wheels to turn their grindstones, and this less-efficient (compared to modern machinery) system meant that only a thin strip of the outer layer was removed from the rice.
Sumidaya Shoten isn’t so old school that it uses a water wheel, but it does configure its machinery to remove far less of the rice’s outer layer, resulting in rice with a distinct amber color.
▼ Edo Rice
While you can cook Edo Rice like any other variety, Sumidaya Shoten’s staff does have a few recommendations. First, a light washing is best, they told us. A quick two or three rinses prior to cooking is all you need.
▼ The water quickly turns a milky white with Edo Rice.
Next, Sumidaya Shoten suggests an extra-long soak, leaving the rice in water for two to three hours before cooking.
Oddly enough, once it’s time to actually cook the rice, the staff told us it’s best to use your rice cooker’s high-speed cooking mode. They’re not sure of the exact reason why, but somehow bringing the rice cooker up to its full cooking temperature as quickly as possible results in the best flavor, they’ve found.
Once the cooking was done and we opened the lid of our rice cooker, though, we were in for a major surprise because despite the amber color of the pre-cooked kernels, Edo Rice cooks up as snowy white as any other rice we regularly buy in Japan.
▼ Modern white rice (left) and Edo Rice (right)
But while Edo Rice may look like the extra-polished stuff, it has a fragrance and flavor all its own. By leaving more of the upper layers of the kernels intact, Edo Rice has an extra-grainy aroma that entices you to bite into a mouthful as soon as possible. Once you do, you’re rewarded with a deeper flavor than modern rice varieties, one that seems to become sweeter and sweeter as you chew and smell it.
Edo Rice is sold in two sizes: a 300-gram pack bearing a beautiful ukiyo-e rendering of Mt Fuji for 648 yen, or a more utilitarian five-kilogram sack for 2,450 yen.
Between the Kyoto restaurant serving one of the favorite foods of famed samurai warlord Akechi Mitsuhide, the return of a milky snack loved by Japanese court nobles 1,000 years ago, and now this, we’re happy to be having so many ways to let our taste buds time travel back in Japanese history, plus have another reason to use our new portable rice cooker.
Sumidaya Shoten / 隅田屋商店
Address: Tokyo-to, Suida-ku, Higashi Komagata 1-6-1
Open 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
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