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Japan without rice is not Japan

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It was almost 5,000 years ago when a Chinese emperor proclaimed there would forever be 5 sacred grains. With China being the dominant superpower for centuries, all other nations were left in the dust playing catch up.

For anyone who has studied about Japan, you will undoubtedly know how much Japan borrowed from China, often via Korea, to build and enhance their own empire. Although wheat, barley, soybeans, and millet were important to Japan, rice was the game changer.

Agriculture changed to accommodate rice paddies. Rice was consumed with nearly every meal. In fact, the word for rice in Japanese, "gohan" or "meshi" translates as both rice and meal. Rice is food for the poor and the rich. Ground up up rice flour could be made into crackers or noodles, and fermented rice will produce the tasty rice wine saké. But rice is so much more than a foodstuff in Japan.

Rice has cemented itself into Japanese religion in both Shintoism and Buddhism. Inari is the god of rice and is still honored today through Kagura. This ancient form of Japanese theater involves a slow dance bound with symbolic clothes and hats made of rice straw. Sweeping feet and movements that mimic dropping seeds into the ground praise Inari for his help with past harvests and show that humans still recognize we need to be one with nature and the natural gods in order to live our own lives in harmony.

Rice or saké are common offerings at Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, or for relatives who have passed away. Perhaps it was the near living gods of the Tokugawa period that solidified rice into Japan’s history.

The shogun and daimyo of feudal Japan were the rulers of kingdoms large and small. Each maintained their own armies, paying the soldiers in rice. In fact, rice was the currency of the day. Taxes were in rice, payment was in rice, and wealth was calculated by how many sacks of rice you owned; assets were noted in the number of rice fields under your control. And today, the government still holds rice as sacred.

The Japanese government subsidizes rice, paying farmers to ensure that their aging population cranks out more rice. Akita Prefecture even produces its own special rice because of a unique mix of soil, clean water, and coastal location. It is quite tasty and once you have had the “komachi” brand, you’ll never be satisfied with regular rice.

In reality, though, with rice eaten on a daily basis by the majority of the population, the Japanese cannot produce enough rice for themselves. Even my home California exports rice to Japan. And the rice diet is not likely to change, though more imports may be necessary as fewer generations are willing to take up the risky business of rice farming.

So enjoy your rice in Japan. It takes a while to learn to eat with chopsticks, but you’ll get the hang of it. You’ll see rice referenced in festivals, in art, and on your dinner plate. And if you have some time, be sure to check out Hirosaki’s (Aomori Prefecture) rice field art (pictured above) which has new designs every year.

© Japan Today

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38 Comments
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Never did really take to Japanese rice. Despite the many varieties they all taste rather bland to me. Plus being a sticky rice they are not good for anything other than steamed. Tried frying it once or twice but with limited success. Best rice I ever had was in Pakistan (pre 9-11).

0 ( +10 / -10 )

Never did really take to Japanese rice.

I guess that's a matter of "taste"... (in every sense of the term). Personally I love "gohan" but not so much "rice"... the difference being the former is served in a rice bowl and eaten with chopsticks, the latter on a plate and eaten with cutlery. It is an "accompanying" dish - usually not eaten "alone" and "bland" rice brings out the flavour of the main course. To each his own but if you don't like Japanese rice, there's always "Mac Do's".

0 ( +4 / -4 )

The vast majority of Japanese did not eat rice daily until modern times......

0 ( +5 / -5 )

I think you are talking about white rice susano? But yes, I think even brown rice was not exactly cheap, and a lot of the poor were stuck eating other grains, like barley.

In the old days, rice was like money, a samurai clan's wealth was measured in rice. It is hard to believe that even the dirt poor were eating it.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

At my local bread show there's a big sign explaining why bread is more nutritious than rice.

Whenever any country hangs on to a product as a matter of culture rather than a matter of ability, they are necessarily limiting the wealth of their nation. Not that they shouldn't do that, just that it's good if people understand the relationship.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

White bread and white rice......not too interesting. Brown rice and real bread are great.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Good white bread can be delicious (french baguette for example) and good white rice equally so. With even a minor amount of some topping or pickle is fabulous. Sticky nicer than loose.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

The Roman Gladiators maintained great strength and endurance on a daily diet of beans and barley. Eat it if you want the most bang for your buck. Now and again, you can have rice for a taste treat.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Japan was a latecomer in rice cultivation in Asia, a fact often forgotten in Japan.

The top rice brands in Japan are the best in the world, although you can get excellent Japonica for much less money from the US or Australia.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

I've tried rice in seven countries so far and none comes even close to japanese rice!

3 ( +6 / -3 )

Plus being a sticky rice they are

Except "mochigome", it's not sticky rice.

not good for anything other than steamed.

The Italians find no problem making risotto with their japonica rice (arborio, etc) and the Spanish paella with theirs (bomba, etc).

The Japanese government subsidizes rice, paying farmers to ensure that their aging population cranks out more rice.

That has nothing to do with history. Japanese government has to make anything to increase local production, and not only rice, the bigger variety the better. If market wants less rice, they could revive production of more buckwheat, make more wheat, more potatoes, beetroots, whatever . But they have to grow something. Some short view people will tell you it's better to import everything cheaper. Let's say Japan gets Thai rice (supposing the market accepts it), they get it 25% of price,one year, five year and... oh sh...t, some floods ! There so little produced that during the next year it's no rice and then during 5 years it costs 200%. Australian rice ? What happened with droughts and fires ? So they go where then ? The Mexicans have made the mistake with maize corn. They had millions of small farmers, but inefficient. Hey abuelo, your corn is too expensive, let's buy cheap from big modern farms (in the US). So the farms are gone, they have millions living in slums. And they get only US corn on the market, probably GMO. Cheap ? Not in a year like this with a drought in the US, world prices of corn soar. The corn tortilla is reaching the prices of caviar. The rich can pay. The poor are left with the eyes to cry. If they had kept some local production, if more countries had stayed in the game, the US weather would have a lesser impact on prices.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

The article is a bit misleading about why California rice is imported into Japan. Japan - after a lot of pressure from the US - made an agreement to import a certain amount of rice, which they now do from Thailand, Australia and the US among other countries. Despite this, Japan is basically self-sufficient in rice, which has been its aim all along in rejecting imports.

Like Japanese rice farmers, US rice farmers are heavily subsidized. This article states one group's claim (you can decide yourself if you believe them) that the amount for Californian rice is an average $37,000 per recipient.

http://articles.latimes.com/2005/dec/04/business/fi-calrice4

Rather wonderfully, those farmers even pin the blame for their reliance on subsidies on Japanese and Korean practices...

4 ( +5 / -1 )

keepitupSep. 07, 2012 - 11:35AM JST In the old days, rice was like money, a samurai clan's wealth was measured in rice. It is hard to believe that even the dirt poor were eating it.

Rice wasn't "like" money, rice was money. The value of a gold coin was set as a cartload of rice, except that unlike Western countries where gold was the standard and everything else fluctuated, in Japan the value of gold fluctuated depending on the availability of rice.

As for Japanese rice, I like it, but it's not good with everything. Basmati rice is far superior for eating with curries, and I find it lamentable that wild rice, brown rice, etc, are so difficult to find in Japan. Most Japanese people have never eaten anything other than Japanese rice, and I find this quite disappointing. The type of rice, like the type of wine, should be matched to the dish. Always using one type of rice deprives Japanese people of so much.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Never did really take to Japanese rice. [I guess that's a matter of "taste"..]

It's more than just a matter of taste. It's a matter of choosing a brand, finding one that suits your palate, and cooking it properly - which is an art: properly washing and rinsing, adding the right amount of water, a bit of salt, a piece of charcoal, choosing the right program on your rice cooker, are all very important. Gai-mai, excuse me, foreign (imported) rice does not go well with traditional Japanese cooking. It took me many, many years to learn to master the way to cook palatable, tasty rice, to find my favorite and appreciate it. My diet, consisting of mainly Japanese dishes, would not be complete without Japanese rice - there is no place for long grain rice, except in curry dishes. Which is not meant to say long grain rice is inferior.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I find it lamentable that wild rice, brown rice, etc, are so difficult to find in Japan.

I think you are mistaken. Brown rice, genmai, is sold in all supermarkets, rice shops and on the internet. I've been buying brown rice and sprouted brown rice for many years.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

When I first arrived in Japan, a girl said to me that Japanese rice tasted better. In my ignorance, I laughed and kind of mocked her because I thought rice was rice. But she was right. Japanese white rice is the best you can eat in my opinion - the Koshi Hikari my wife's Dad grows is outstanding. I also really like brown rice - particularly a red Indonesian variety you get over there. But yes, rice is very much central to Japan. The venerated grain. There are worse things to worship.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

@presto345

You mean you put SALT in Japanese rice when you cook it ? Do you also put charcoal in it ? Or do you cook it on charcoal ? Just curious to know because I was always taught to NEVER put salt into rice when cooking it (not afterwards either, that's what the "tsukemono" are for) and I do know how to cook rice over gas, in a special "kama" although I'll admit it's much easier in the rice cooker I purchased some years ago

adding the right amount of water, a bit of salt, a piece of charcoal, choosing the right program on your rice cooker,

You must have a very fancy cooker ! Mine just says how many cups of water for the same amount of rice...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

presto-

That's not wild rice that's just jpns rice unshelled. (it is also usually prohibitively expensive).

long-grain, "wild", varieties of "brown" rice (many colors really ) are very hard to find here. And even more expensive than domestic brown rice. Unfortunately.

fightingviking-

I think there are different local traditions of rice-cooking, but putting in a pinch or few of salt (when you cook it not after) is a pretty widespread practice, just maybe not wherever you are. Do NOT put in a random piece of charcoal. It is charcoal of certain varieties of wood (usually bamboo actually) that are made a certain way/treated first, that are used in food. (Some put it in water pitchers they keep in their fridge to purify). Don't just use any barbecue bag of charcoal, do some research.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

putting in a pinch or few of salt

You're probably right ! However, you didn't see the look of utter "disbelief" even "horror" when I suggested putting in some salt... I was living in the Kansai area at the time but even now in Kanto, I have never heard of it being done... Where is this done ?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

presto345Sep. 07, 2012 - 11:34PM JST I think you are mistaken. Brown rice, genmai, is sold in all supermarkets, rice shops and on the internet. I've been buying brown rice and sprouted brown rice for many years.

Thanks for the tip. I'll check again. The area where I live is famous for rice and there are at least thirty different brands of local rice on the shelves, but I've never seen brown rice (and I've looked carefully). I'll ask for genmai.

I do buy wild rice off the internet from time to time, but it's very expensive, and jasmine, basmati and other rices are very difficult to find.

Gai-mai, excuse me, foreign (imported) rice does not go well with traditional Japanese cooking.

But then you must be forced to agree that if foreign rice doesn't go well with traditional Japanese foods, then likewise Japanese rice doesn't go well with many foreign foods, yet I almost always see "curry rice" served with Japanese rice.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Frungy.

Hanamasa stocks Jasmine rice, Basmati you can get from indojin.com.

HTH.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

fightingviking,

well I live in Kansai, so there you have it. It seems to be an option around here, not something you do all the time. But it could have just been the preference of the individuals you were talking to.

Frungy-

brown rice is very unpopular here. It is difficult to chew, doesn't taste as sweet, and I think there is still the stigma of it being poor ppls food and white rice being the desired food that nobody could eat often, until like 100 yrs ago or whatever. Therefore it is not always stocked (I only ever see it in fancy department store's supermarkets) And usually more than twice the price.

Save us from the curry rice with sticky rice. Even the Indean restaurant near me serves jpns rice w/ their curry as it is the only one they can get at a good price.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

itsme-

thanks for the indojin link, looks good.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

White rice has zero nutritional value, it's empty calories. Eat brown rice instead, it tastes better and is better for you.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

White rice has zero nutritional value, it's empty calories. Eat brown rice instead, it tastes better and is better for you.

It would be better for you not to tell people what to eat.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

In reality, though, with rice eaten on a daily basis by the majority of the population, the Japanese cannot produce enough rice for themselves.

In reality, doesn't Japan have a surplus rice mountain? Aren't people eating less rice and more bread/pasta? Aren't the authorities pushing for more rice in school lunches both to reduce the mountain and to prevent kids losing the habit of eating rice? Weren't those ubiquitous rice-flour breadmakers developed as a means of using more rice and less wheat?

brown rice is very unpopular here. It is difficult to chew, doesn't taste as sweet, and I think there is still the stigma of it being poor ppls food and white rice being the desired food that nobody could eat often, until like 100 yrs ago or whatever. Therefore it is not always stocked (I only ever see it in fancy department store's supermarkets) And usually more than twice the price.

Nokyo stocks brown rice - they polish it fresh for the customer at point of sale. Ask for it unpolished and they knock a bit off the price because (they reckon) you're getting less rice and more husk. The electric shops also sell electric rice polishers, and more people are buying brown rice and polishing it as and when they cook it.

I prefer brown rice, both for its health benefits and the taste; it's virtually the only kind of rice I buy (apart from a very small amount for special dishes). I certainly would not be buying it if it cost anywhere near twice the price. It's cheaper than ready-polished rice.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Well, you and I may like brown rice, but not many jpns I know do. That is why it is too expensive. I found one regular grocery store where it was 800y for 2kg which was very reasonable, but it went out of business and I haven't found anywhere else that stocked that brand (price). Also, when in a hurry, white is faster. I don't know Nokyo, tho, I guess there isn't one near me...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This site have many martyr readers, bullied by Japanese food suppliers...

Well, you and I may like brown rice, but not many jpns I know do.

They invented the macrobiotic cult, which is about eating genmai.

That is why it is too expensive....well I live in Kansai,

You do ? In Kansai here (Osaka), 100% of supermarkets sell white or genmai exactly the same price. I've always got some at that rate since the 90's, never paid it more than white. Supply used to be less regular, but that was years ago and I sometimes had to make the trip to Anew (macrobio grocers, many shops in Kansai). Now the choice is even wider as we used to find widely only Akita genmai in supermarkets, but I see sometimes from Kyushu, some Milky Queen... Rice stores discount depending on how much you buy, and they get of any region.

800y for 2kg

Yes, roughly 700 to 1200 yen for 2 kg in supermarkets. Do you know supermarkets Aeon ? Daiei ? Life ? ikari ? What nook of Kansai doesn't have any of these ? They all have some, ask if you can't find. The "brown rice" that costs much more is re-dried "hatsuga genmai" (germinated rice... with dead germ, great concept). As only bobos buy that, bobo price is justified.

Even the Indean restaurant near me serves jpns rice w/ their curry as it is the only one they can get at a good price.

If they wanted, they could order basmati in bulk for under 500 yen/kg. That's what most Indian expats do. If they wanted... It's just they couldn't care less about serving actual Indian cuisine. Most cheap "Indians" are proud to propose Holy Cow nasubi curry, don't they ? How authentic ! And you buy what they sell anyway, it seems.

people are buying brown rice and polishing it as and when they cook it.

Yes, many families do that in Osaka. They order a bulk amount of genmai once a year, in season , at cheapest price. They prefer storing it that way, it stays fresher than polished in advance. Also some people like their rice "semi polished", they put the low setting on their machine. Not convenient for a single person, but the retail price is not a ruin.

Also, when in a hurry, white is faster.

Sure. You need to soak the genmai (about 3 days ideally). But that doesn't use your time, just plan ahead. You can make a big batch and freeze it, so you get some that can be used quickly.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

wow, 100% of the supermarkets in Osaka? Not just your neighborhood? At that price? In my city only the big dept stores like I said, and not the hatuga genmai, all genmai is too expensive. I was told actually that since demand is low that they make less genmai so it is more expensive. I thot strange because it is less work to sell genmai than white. BUt they kept going on with their reasons, so whatever. I don't know all of those stores you mention, and the ones I heard of I don't have near me.

The Indian restaurants I go to have great Indian food, no holy cows. I imagine if it is not the price, they must use jpns rice because it is what their customers prefer, not because they "don't care".

3 days-- If I make genmai, 3 hours, maybe a little more. White rice is for popping it in and cooking right away which I do often. Actually they sell "wet" rice microwave packs, I do that too sometimes. I am not a big freezer guy.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

All the food in big department stores is too expensive. My local Nokyo charges ¥1650 for 5kg rice, with a bit knocked off if they don't polish it for you. It's a bit cheaper if you buy by the 30kg bag, but then you have to find somewhere to store a humungous bag of rice.

If I want something quick, I can either take some cooked rice out of the freezer, or make something (pasta, or a sandwich) that doesn't involve using the rice cooker. When I cook rice I wash it and set it in the cooker around lunchtime (when I'm in the kitchen getting lunch anyway) and set the timer for dinnertime in the evening, so it doesn't really matter that brown rice takes longer to cook.

If you can't find brown rice in the city, instead of touring the department stores why not take a day trip out into the inaka, find a Nokyo and stock up on enough to keep you going a few months.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Its unfortunate most Japanese are blinded by the brainwashing that J-rice is..............

Yeah sure its good I just bought my 30kgs of genmai for Y8000 that a friend makes where I live & walk all year round, GREAT stuff, I just wish the wife cud handle eating it lightly polished so it had some nutritional value because as ONE poster above correctly pointed out highly polished white rice of ANY brand or origin is nutritionally GARBAGE health wise, tastes fine but your body converts the stuff to sugar so fast you might as well mix a few tablespoons of sugar in a glass of water & drink it, but again that FACT is something the locals dont tend to appreciate, no matter its 100% true.

So while I love J-rice I try not to eat more than once a day & for a guy that weighs 90kgs people cant believe I only want half a bowl or I leave it half full, HELL I dont want to weight 150kgs as I shud try to get down another 5+kgs if I can, but full bowls of rice will make that IMPOSSIBLE because I aint an olympic athlete LOL!

And to the writer, clearly they have either NEVER been to Japan or if they have only a very short time because Japan has produced BIG supluses of rice 99% of the years I have been here, there is mountains of the stuff in storage that is used to feed cattle, make sembei,, try to pawn off as AID, or made into glue or sembei once it starts to mold, so watch out!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

wow, 100% of the supermarkets in Osaka? Not just your neighborhood?

Yes, all average to big size supermarkets. If your neighborhood is different, you should shop elsewhere or order on the web. That's what I'd do if they raised the price locally. Many cheap offers :

http://kakaku.com/search_results/%8C%BA%95%C4/?category=0028%5F0008%5F0002&c=&nkey=&spt=5&act=Input&lid=ksearch%5Fauto%5Fcategory

If I make genmai, 3 hours, maybe a little more

As you like it, that's your stomach.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

highly polished white rice of ANY brand or origin is nutritionally GARBAGE health wise, tastes fine but your body converts the stuff to sugar so fast you might as well mix a few tablespoons of sugar in a glass of water

That's a simplistic and false affirmation. When you eat the white rice in a meal with enough greens, it's not a faster sugar than brown rice, you can have the same amount of fibers and it is more easily digestible. Then browse about the health issue caused by eating daily quickly prepared whole grains like the adepts of the "no white carb" mantra. Whole grain diet can be healthy in case you prepare them the old way (sourdough bread raising over several day, longly soaked grains).

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Cos,

I was commenting on JUST the rice! Lightly polished brown rice has good fibre, nutrients, highly polished white rice DOESNT, its basically empty calories, fine if your very active as you can burn(ie make use of the energy) or if your blessed with a high metabolism & you dont have to watch what you eat.

But white rice is pretty nutritionally void, high energy, empty calories, just is. And as I said I eat the stuff all the time, BUT I do limit my intake because I need to, pretty simple stuff.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"But white rice is pretty nutritionally void, high energy, empty calories"

Rice has calories. Anything that you consume which produce energy has calories. Maybe a mistypo from you?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

cos- thankx for the link

0 ( +0 / -0 )

In the old days, rice was like money, a samurai clan's wealth was measured in rice. It is hard to believe that even the dirt poor were eating it.

It appears to be the case - rice was a luxury food. The lower orders had to make do with a much more spartan diet:

"The shops, such as they are, contain the barest necessaries of life. Millet and buckwheat rather than rice, with the universal daikon, are the staples of diet" (Isabella Bird, 1878)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Pfft! Sure it is! Most Japanese have some kind of bread, not rice, for breakfast these days.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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