Meet the real hero of Japanese cuisine

By on April 1, 2017

Earlier this year, I spent a weekend in Tokyo’s countryside with some local high school students, practicing English, enjoying nature and exchanging cultural knowledge and experiences with one another.

During one of our buffet-style meals, I took too much rice and decided to discard what I could not finish; that is, until one of the Japanese students reprimanded me.

She explained that of all the food on my plate -the noodles, the fish, the chicken, the vegetables, and the natto– it was of the utmost importance and showed most respect that I always finish my rice.

I was embarrassed and a bit shocked.  Then I asked her why.  She dutifully explained that there was a period in Japanese history when even grains of rice were scarce, and that the work involved in producing rice was very complex.  She also enlightened me to the fact that in each grain of rice 88 Japanese gods supposedly dwell.

Humbled by my ignorance and to avoid any further cultural insult, I finished every last grain, and to this day, I have yet to waste any more rice.

Spurred on by her reproach, I decided to look in the role that Japonica (Japanese rice) plays in both the history and culture of the Land of the Golden Ears of Rice.

Historically

While rice can be traced as far back as 5000 BC, the Hunan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology in China says it has evidence of 8,000-year-old rice.  It is the grain fruit of a grass plant that is the world’s number one food crop, providing between 55 per cent to 80 per cent of the calories in the daily diet of 2.7 billion Asians.  It is a staple for more than half the world’s population and grows in more than one hundred countries on every continent except Antartica, with the vast majority (over 90 per cent) grown across Asia.

Rice is extremely versatile.  It can be eaten plain, mixed with meat, fish, fowl, or vegetables, or combined with fruits, nuts, and berries.  It can be boiled, steamed, fried, baked, puffed and fermented.  It can be cooked up wet, sticky light, fluffy, and dry.  Its derivatives can be made into flour for baking or for making alcohol such as sake and shochu.  It is offered during worship, thrown at weddings, and magically you can even have your name minutely engraved on just one grain.  And while in the West, it is still considered more of a side dish, that’s just not so here in Japan.

Gohan (steamed rice, ready to eat) literally means “honorable food”, and is held in great esteem.  Children are told the grains are called ‘little Buddhas’ so that they will finish what is put before them.  When the Japanese think of shushoku (main dish), they think rice, with everything else, a supporting cast.  Rice is Japan’s most important crop, having been cultivated here for over 2,000 years, and it was once used as currency, where the yield of rice from the field was a way of measuring one’s wealth, and therefore social status.

Japanese history recounts stories of white-robed priests who cooked rice twice daily to present to Amaterasu (the sun goddess) at the Shrine of Ose, located 190 miles southwest of Tokyo.  She was believed to have brought a handful of rice from heaven, so that Japanese could grow and prosper.  So convinced were the people of her blessings of abundance that every autumn the emperor sent to the Shrine his offering of the first rice stalks harvested from the rice field he himself planted on the imperial palace grounds.

And still today, those strong cultural and dietetic bonds remain.

In this address to the Japan Society Food Forum in 2000, the President and CEO of Kikkoman Corporation, said of rice:

“Clearly, this humble grain has impacted human life across history and nowhere more so than in Asia.”  He continued, “Rice is what kept us alive during our most difficult times, and (has) become the hero of Japanese cuisine.”  Rice is so central to Japanese cuisine that breakfast (asagohan) is called ‘morning rice’, lunch (hirugohan) is ‘afternoon rice’ and dinner (yorugohan) is ‘evening rice’.  Japan and rice are so intertwined that it would be extremely difficult to understand one without the other.

And while today Japan is regarded as a highly technological, industrialized and organized society, much of its traditional rural and agrarian culture still exists.

Cultivation

Imported with the introduction of agriculture and 1000 BC, rice cultivation ushered in the beginning of the Yayoi Period (300 BC-300 AD).  As it is relatively easy to grow, prepare and cook, rice grown through wet rice farming soon resulted in hunting losing favor as the main means of sustenance.  The Japanese were now becoming more sedentary, eventually leading to a more regulated life governed by the seasonal rhythms of rice-growing sowing, planting, fertilizing, weeding, flooding, harvesting, threshing, hulling, and polishing, which could be considered to be the cradle of Japanese civilization.  Instead of searching for food, they could concentrate on growing better-quality rice.

And to grow better rice, three key ingredients are needed: abundant rainfall, fertile soil and quality seed.  Japan, being a moist country, has the perfect climate within which to grow rice.  But how did early farmers, with limited expertise and technology, increase the quality and yield of their crop?  The answer: by praying to God!

So Shintoism was born, as priests positioned themselves as messengers on behalf of farmers to deliver prayers for higher- quality rice.  And it is for this reason that rice continues to be such an integral part of Japanese society.

Writers and photographers Jeffrey and Naomi Duguid, authors of the bestselling cookbook, Seductions of Rice (Artisan 1998), inextricably linked Japanese rice to Shinto.  “If rice has life and the agricultural cycle is what is central for people, and has been for centuries, then Shinto celebrates the life cycle, and … (that cycle) will be celebrated with rice.”  They add that still today, rice is an integral part of Shinto rituals and celebration, not only in granular form, but also mochi – sticky rice that is pounded into round cakes commonly given as religious offerings.

Fast Forward

According to a story in the Washington Post,”… Per capita, rice consumption among Japanese has fallen to half of what it was in the late 1960s”, suggesting that new foods and less time are complicit in rice’s continual decline.  Regardless, many Japanese still recognize and honor the importance of rice production as crucial to conserving their cultural heritage.  If we are seeing a trend that rice is being replaced by other foods, what does the future hold?  Elizabeth Ando, a leading expert on Japanese food and culture who authored the book Rice and Rituals (Japan Society Inc., 2001) wrote that we must pay tribute to “the amount of human creativity involved in transforming a very simple plant into the most incredible food source, a food that has sustained people, not only from a nutritional point of view, but also emotional and social point of view.”

I concur.  Gohan anyone?

Rice – The Name Game

Rice is never merely “rice”.  From seedling to bowl, it starts out and becomes many different things.  Depending on what stage of growth or preparation is being described, rice can be called by a variety of names, including:

tane  –  the generic name for a seed

ine  –  the resulting plant

ta-ue  –  the process of transplantation

suiden  –  large water-filled paddy field that takes months to mature, after which comes the harvesting, drying, and separation stages

momi  –  unhulled rice

momigara  –  the hull

o-kome  –  a general term for uncooked rice

genmai  –  nutrient rich unmilled or unpolished brown rice ready for cooking, considered the healthiest to consume due to the abundance of both vitamins and minerals

seimai  –  polished white rice (rice is polished primarily to prolong storage)

gohan  –  the general term for meal or more specifically cooked rice

mochi gome  –  glutinous rice (when still uncooked)

mochi gohan  –  glutinous rice after being steamed

Types of Japanese rice grain

Akitakomachi  Akita prefecture-grown premium short grain.

Sasanishiki  Sendai-grown, commonly used in sushi.

Koshihikari  Widely consumed in Japan, Niigata-harvested is the most expensive compared to those grown in other regions.

About Paul Heaton

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