More Than a Side Dish: A Brief Look at Rice in Japan
Written by Kevin Kilcoyne
One of the most essential parts of Japanese cuisine, and culture, is probably also one of its simplest: rice.
White, fluffy, steaming, and sweet, rice finds its way into the Japanese diet in many ways. The simple grain is eaten at breakfast, lunch, or dinner (if not for two or even all three meals.) Of the many preparations, there is the ubiquitous onigiri, or balls of rice usually filled with ingredients like umeboshi pickled plums or tuna-mayo, available at any convenience store. Of course, there’s also sushi, made even more accessible by the abundance of casual kaiten or conveyor belt sushi chains, and then there are gyudon fast-food restaurants, serving bowls of grilled meat atop steaming bowls of white rice. There’s unagidon, grilled eel over rice, chahan, fried rice, tamago kakegohan, rice topped with a raw egg and soy sauce, takikomi gohan and maze gohan, dishes of rice cooked together with various other ingredients, ochazuke, rice topped with one’s preferred ingredients and then submerged in hot tea or dashi broth, and omurice, an egg omelet folded over rice cooked in a tomato sauce topped with more sauce.
As one can see, the list of culinary dishes based around rice as the main ingredient goes on and on, and yet as simple as it may be, rice hasn’t always been a staple food for the masses in Japan. That’s because its history is rooted in the old feudal system, during a time when rice, especially polished rice, was reserved for the upper nobility and warrior classes. In fact, the wealth and size of feudal domains was determined by their rice production, and how many koku, or the amount of rice needed to feed one person for one year, their lands could produce.
As such, farmers rarely had the luxury of eating the fruits, or rather cereals, of their labors. Instead, they survived on other less desirable grains like millet and barley, paying the bales of rice they cultivated as taxes to the warriors. Even still, rice and its cultivation play a large part in both the cuisine and culture of Japan and as such, harvesting and planting seasons became times of celebration and festivity. There are still festivals that happen all over Japan, and even communities of farmers that get together to cultivate rice terraces into beautiful works of art.
It wasn’t until the Edo period in the 17th century that rice became more widely available as an era of peace allowed the country to flourish. Gradually, the once scarce grain found its way into the diets of the populace, though it never completely lost its coveted status, which has contributed to the significance and presence of rice in religious ceremonies. For that reason, refrain from sticking your chopsticks straight up in your bowl of rice, that’s how you leave an offering in a Buddhist funerary rite!
In addition to the various ways rice can be prepared, there is also an abundance of brands and species of rice cultivated and sold in Japan.
Throughout the world, it is estimated that there are somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 varieties or species of rice. In Japan the estimate is somewhere between 500 and 900. This figure includes both widely produced varieties as well as rarer and less commonly produced strains, putting the number of consumer varieties closer to 275. Of these, the most popular is Niigata’s Koshihikari, which is followed by Miyagi’s Hitomebore, Kumamoto’s Hinohikari, Akita’s Akitakomachi, and Hokkaido’s Nanatsuboshi. Differences in climate and geography make the varieties of rice distinct in flavor, aroma, size and texture, as well as contributing to the differences in price.
These basic types of rice, regardless of their name or brand, fall under the category of uruchimai, or simply Japanese short grain rice, but there is also mochigome, or sweet glutinous rice, which is noticeably different in texture and taste. In fact this is the type of rice used to traditionally make mochi rice cakes as its sticky, glutinous texture allows for it to be pounded into a smooth, elastic dough-like ball before being cut and shaped.
Additionally, rice is categorized by how it’s been polished, or rather how much it’s been polished. There is genmai, or brown unpolished rice, kinmeimai, semi-sprouted polished rice, and haigamai, or partially polished rice, to name a few. Not to mention the fact that there is also a distinction between the words for rice that hasn’t been cooked, okome, and rice that has been cooked, gohan. The word gohan even means “meal” in Japanese.
And although rice is still a staple in most Japanese homes, the popularity of rice in Japan as fallen over the past forty years as diets have changed following Western influences introducing other carbs to fill peoples’ bellies.
As a result, there are many farmers in Japan trying to bring back the traditional methods of farming, both as an act of environmental stewardship and a way to bring communities back together to maintain a cultural heritage. They must push against decades of legislation and land issues to pursue their goals but persist they will in order to restore rice to its former glory.
So, hopefully the sprawling culinary history of rice in Japan can inspire you to venture outside of the idea that rice is simply a plain side dish, but rather a main ingredient that can be explored and involved as the star of a meal. I know that after my time in Japan I have seen rice in a different light, once seeing it as an empty and boring accompaniment now as an ingredient all its own.
Try different varieties of rice and test your palette, see if you can detect the differences in taste and aroma. Test out your own fillings for onigiri or toppings for ochazuke. You might even try tossing in some mushrooms, carrots, chicken, or sweet potatoes along with your rice in your rice cooker, it could be your new go-to easy weeknight meal!
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@kevinjkilcoyne) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food.