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Have a Rice Day: An Introduction to Japanese Rice

Apr 30 2020 - Blog

“I cannot live without rice.” – Most of us just can’t go a day without these tummy-filling grains.
Perhaps that’s a tad exaggerated, but the fact is that 90% of the world’s rice is produced and consumed in the Asia-Pacific region, which makes rice an important staple food for us.

Among the myriad of rice varieties grown in Asia, Japanese rice is one of the most popular. If you’ve ever tasted a sushi roll or a bowl of sparking chirashi-don… you know what we’re talking about ;)

Today, let Sky Premium tell you interesting facts you didn’t know about this delicious polished short grain.

History of Rice in Japan

Rice is a staple ingredient in Japanese cuisine and has been cultivated for over 2,000 years in Japan. For a long time, Japanese rice was a food reserved for the warriors and the nobility. The vast population only start eating it from the 17th century onwards, and it only became a cornerstone of Japanese cuisine in the early 20th century.

The Japanese have more words for rice than for love. Children are taught that the rice they eat is grown meticulously by hard-working farmers and they should not waste a single grain.

How Rice-Growing Was Introduced into Japan

It is believed that the Japanese first learnt to grow rice around the 3rd century B.C. during the Yayoi period. Rice agriculture probably came to Japan from Korea and China. Rice found from the remains of this period belonged to the short-grain Japonica variety that's common in southern China and on the Korean Peninsula.

Rice-growing seems to have come first to the northern part of the island of Kyushu in western Japan. Since Japan's mild and humid climate is good for growing this crop, it spread to the rest of Kyushu and to the other islands.

Rice was originally a tropical plant, and it didn’t grow well when the summer was too cool. In the past, the rice crop failed on many occasions in the northern part of Honshu, Japan's main island, causing great suffering for the people living there. But now varieties of rice that can better withstand cool summers have been developed, and northern Honshu (the Tohoku region) is now one of Japan's leading rice-growing areas.

Party in the Rice Fields: Otaue Festival

Rice fields have shaped Japanese rural landscapes and their preservation is a priority for localities and the government today. Rice planting is always done from spring to early summer and harvesting (inekari) is done in Fall.

Traditionally, festivals were held with the hope to increase yields and rice quality. Of these, one of the most illustrious ceremonies can be seen at the Otaue Festival, which still happens today in Osaka. Ota means “rice” and ue means “plant”.

Ploughing rice fields with bulls, the impressive parade consists of samurai, dancers, priests and geishas. The ancient ceremony includes prayers and rice transplanting, accompanied by traditional songs and ritual dances.

Rice in Japanese Language

In the Japanese language, there are three different words for “rice”. Ine 稲 as rice plants grown in the fields; o-kome お米 for harvested rice; gohan (also read as meshi) ご飯 for the cooked rice that we eat.

Rice is so important in Japan that the word gohan also means “meal”. Adding the words for “morning”, “noon” and “night” (asa, hiru, ban) before gohan makes up the words for “breakfast”, “lunch” and “dinner” respectively. Breakfast is literally called "morning rice". Some Japanese will tell you that they don't feel like they're eating a real meal if there is no gohan!

Types of Japanese Rice

Most Japanese rice types belong to the short-grain variety. Grains of Japonica rice favoured in Japan are short and sticky. The rice has a gelatinous texture and round grains.

The first type of rice is uruchimai 粳米, also known as Japanese short-grain rice, ordinary rice or Japanese rice in short. This is the rice you use to make sushi, rice balls and everyday Japanese dishes. It is also the type of rice used to make sake and rice vinegar.

The second type is mochigome 餅米, also known as Japanese sweet rice or glutinous rice. It is commonly used to make mochi rice cakes or traditional wagashi sweets.

Although both uruchimai and mochigome are characterized by their sticky texture, they are used differently and are not interchangeable. Mochigome is much stickier, chewier and more glutinous compared to the regular Japanese short-grain rice.

What Makes Japanese Rice Sticky?

Japanese rice is characteristically clingy and sticky due to its high proportion of starch and moisture content. Starch is composed of amylose and amylopectin. When the level of amylose is low and level of amylopectin is high, you get sticky rice.

The unique stickiness of Japanese rice defines the character of Japanese cuisine. Regular Japanese rice is commonly cooked plain for everyday meals, whether it is for Japanese curry, donburi rice bowls or onigiri rice balls.

On the other hand, sushi rice is steamed Japanese rice that is flavoured with vinegar-based seasonings and it’s only used for making sushi. In Japan, it is known as sumeshi (vinegared rice).

Japanese Rice, Health and Longevity

For the last 25 years, Japan has boasted one of the longest life expectancies in the world. There’s no doubt that one of the secrets to Japanese longevity lies in their diet — a way of eating that places rice at its centre.

In fact, Japanese rice contains several well-balanced nutritional elements such as calcium and vitamins. It offers ample amounts of vegetable protein, which is the source of vital energy. It also contains an abundant supply of dietary fibre and relatively modest fat levels.

Naturally Low in Calories, Naturally Beautiful

Due to its simple taste, Japanese rice pairs well with an array of vegetables and side dishes. When rice dishes are prepared, the grains of rice remain intact when mixed with other ingredients; the food is only processed after it enters your stomach. Since this processing takes time, it keeps your stomach satisfied for longer.

Cooked rice is composed of about 60% water. Eating a portion of about 200 grams of prepared rice means you are eating only about 80 grams of actual rice. This means the level of calorie intake is lower as well. Thus, rice is a food that encourages not only health but beauty. Perhaps this is the reason why a Japanese woman in her 40s can appear more youthful than her actual age!


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