Japanese Rice Grains

Japanese Rice

In the Tokugawa era (1600-1868), rice was not just an edible
foodstuff. It was also the tax base of the ruling military
government. People paid taxes in rice (and sometimes cash and soy),
and used rice as an immensely marketable “currency” they could
parlay into other goods.


Koshihikari is the crown jewel of Japanese short-grain rice, noted
for its sweet, nutty taste and slight stickiness; it is especially
suited to sushi. Its name means “light of Koshi.” Koshi is an old
province of Japan, a stretch of land that lines the coast of the
Sea of Japan and covers the birthplace of koshihikari, Niigata
prefecture, as well as the place it took root, Fukui prefecture.
Hikari, “light,” refers to the grain’s polish and its translucent
quality. Koshihikari came from initiatives to increase
rice-production in the immediate postwar era when people struggled
to fill their stomachs. It was initially overshadowed by sturdier,
more high-yield varieties when it debuted in 1944, but after a 1948
earthquake decimated production in Fukui prefecture, koshihikari
got a second chance in new growing conditions. Koshihikari now
accounts for almost 40% of rice production. It is cultivated as a
highly valued “boutique” rice in specialized areas, such as Uonuma
in Niigata prefecture.



Like most modern Japanese rice varieties, hitomebore was born in a
local agricultural station. This short-grain variety was bred in
Miyagi prefecture from koshihikari, and can be grown in far north
regions without sacrificing flavor. Its name means “love at first
sight,” and it is currently the second most popular rice in Japan.
It is eaten plain or in sushi or onigiri.


Akitakomachi is a high-end, short-grain rice from Akita prefecture,
similar to koshihikari but slightly less sticky. It was cross-bred
in Akita prefecture in 1975 from strains from Fukui prefecture.
Because its water content is high, its grain stays plump;
Akitakomachi is especially favored for sushi, for mochi (where a
bit of chewiness is required), and portable foods like onigiri
(where the grains cling together even when cold).


In the last few years, no-wash rice (musenmai) has become popular.
Most home cooks rinse the nal layer of bran–the hada nuka, or skin
bran–o their rice before cooking it by swishing the rice around in
water until it is no longer cloudy. While people occasionally use
this “greywater” to blanch vegetables or water their plants and
gardens, usually it goes down the drain. Musenmai allows the husk
and bran to be reserved for fertilizer, and now makes up 10-20% of
all rice consumption.


The Japanese word “kome” refers to the grains of rice that make
their way into our bowls and plates. There is an entirely different
word for the plant itself–iné, the grassy stalk on which the grains
ripen. Brown rice is known as genmai, written with the character
for “opaque” attached to the character for “rice.” Its husk is
removed, leaving the germ and the bran on top of the starchy
endosperm, which is the grain we see as refined white rice.

It was only in the Meiji period that commoners had wide access to
polished rice. And well into the twentieth century, people mixed
rice with grains such as barley (mugi), rye, different kinds of
millet (like awa or kibi) and even sweet potatoes. In the 1920s, a
kind of rice called haigamai (germ rice) was popularized by the
famed doctor, fiction-writer and Freudian translator Mori Ogai as a
remedy against beriberi, a public health scare caused by vitamin B
deficiency.  The outside bran is removed from the grain,
leaving the germ, with the fiber and vitamins B and E that reside
in that layer. In the last five years, the taste for haigamai has
revived with the overall interest in healthy eating and the “slow
life” movement.


A standard inari sushi is a little handful of fried tofu, made of a
thin tofu layer called abura-age, daubed with oil and filled with
seasoned rice, flecked sometimes with gobo (burdock root) or
carrots. These snacks are named “inari”–most likely coming from the
phrase for “carrying rice”–in recognition of the inari deity seen
in highly localized versions of Shinto, Buddhist and folk
practices. Inari are famed for protecting rice, agriculture, and
fertility. Inari became the patron saint of warriors in the 16th
century, were esteemed for preventing res in 18th c. Edo (Tokyo),
and are intimately related to folk beliefs about spirit possession.
Inari is the patron of about a third of all Shinto shrines and also
the mountain in Kyoto where this deity was first worshiped. In
popular lore, inari are often accompanied by messengers, foxlike
creatures called “kitsune” who are known as shape-shifters who play
tricks on humans when not protecting them. Inari and their
attendant foxes are rumored to have a soft spot for fried tofu. The
plump brown oval shape of inari sushi also recalls the silhouette
of a football–thus this updated version of the recipe, designed to
be passed back and forth in celebration of the spirits and
tricksters of sport.

Show more