Rice is a mainstay in diets found around the world, but our focus here is Japan, a place where the word for rice, gohan, also translates as “a meal.”
Tokyo-born Inoue Yūsuke, in a 2018 column for Nippon.com writes, “We just don’t feel a meal is complete unless there is some rice. Even when we have been out drinking, we like to finish off with rice in some form.”
How did this come to be? For one thing, during the Edo period, which spanned from 1603 to 1868, eating meat was prohibited. Fish and tofu became the only protein options. Side dishes were uncommon outside of miso soup, pickles and tofu. So, grains occupied a crucial part of the Japanese diet, though for most of the Edo period, only aristocrats had access to white rice. Eventually, people in Tokyo and Osaka were able to get white rice, a commodity that didn’t replace millet and other grains in the diets of people who lived in rural areas until the Meiji period (1868 to 1912).
Food shortages followed the end of World War II. Rice wasn’t just a staple; it was the only food many people were able to secure. As Japan came out of that period, meat, milk and other dairy products became more prominent in the average diet.
A History of Rice
In Japan, rice cultivation started between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago. With its warm, humid climate, early farmers found in rice a crop that is easy to grow, consistent in its harvest and easy to store. Soon, rice grew throughout Japan and in time, 90% of the population engaged in rice cultivation.
People began to settle in groups that were more permanent, sharing the tasks of growing rice. Some of these settlements grew large, and with them, rice production grew, and so did the power held by the people in them. Innovation followed: large settlements dug irrigation ditches and floodbanks and experimented with tools made specifically to cultivate rice. Over time, rice became such an important commodity that it had to be guarded. It was then that rice began to function as currency, making it a measure of wealth and the payment for samurai, or warriors.
Not just a food, not just a form of currency, rice became extremely important culturally in Japan as well, finding its place everywhere from festivals to family traditions and even to folklore: a classic tale has it that the Man in the Moon came to Earth disguised as a beggar and was so impressed by a rabbit’s generosity in being willing to offer itself as meat, the Man in the Moon instead revealed himself and took the rabbit home with him. The rabbit is said to be seen in outline during the full moon, pounding mochi, or rice cakes. “Rice is so important in Japanese society,” contends Linda S. Wojtan in a paper published by Stanford University’s Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education, “it has been called the essence of the culture.”
A fresh pot of rice in the Kamado-san donabe.
Some Japanese Rice Varietals
Koshihikari: This popular short-grain rice has a rich taste, sweetness and stickiness in the right proportions, and it’s delicious chilled, making it perfect for sushi. It’s grown throughout Japan and today, it’s also grown outside of Japan, including in Northern California’s Central Valley, which has similarities to Japan in terms of climate and soil. Some Koshihikari types are Milky Queen, Yumegokochi and Yumepirika.
Sasanishiki: Short-grain sasanishiki is a bit less sticky than Koshihikari. Though it, too, is often used in sushi, you’ll also find it in Japanese-style breakfast dishes with ikura or uni. Tsuyahime and Nanatsuboshi are sasanishiki types.
Hitomebore: Hitomebore means “love at first sight” in Japanese and it’s the name of this versatile rice that has larger grains, compared to koshihikari. It’s also lighter. When cooked, hitomebore becomes soft, fluffy, elastic and very tasty. In short, it’s a great everyday rice used for sushi, o-nigiri (rice balls), in bowls, in accompanying yaki-zakana (baked fish) and sashimi.
Akitakomachi: Akitakomachi, a medium-grain rice, comes from Japan’s Akita prefecture, and gets its name from Ono-no-komachi, a singer who lived in the region in the ninth century and was said to be one of the three great beauties of the world. Komachi’s high water content gives it its stickiness, translucent luster and fragrance. Its chewiness makes it a great choice for lunch boxes and onigiri rice balls. And to this day, komachi is a synonym for feminine beauty in Japan.
Storing Your Rice
We know you put your leftover cooked rice in the refrigerator. Where do you store your uncooked rice? We’re betting you seal it up in its original packaging and place it in the pantry or a cabinet, but in Japan, uncooked rice is found in the refrigerator’s vegetable drawer where it stays fresher. Ideally, it also goes in an airtight container, too.
Three Degrees of Basho
The vessel that holds the rice that you see in this Journal post is a donabe. We will soon be telling you all about these special clay cooking tools, but for the moment, check this out:
1. East Fork sells donabes made by Nagatani-En in the Iga prefecture of Japan. Iga is the “most prestigious pottery-making region in Japan.”
2. Iga is also the birthplace of Basho Matsuo (1644-1694), famed haiku writer. Iga is also the birthplace of ninja clans “considered to be the most skilled elites during the age of the samurai.” Legend says Basho was a ninja.
3. Celebrate Basho and the haiku form with us by clicking below and writing us your best rice-themed Haiku in the comments section on the blog.
A Basho haiku to get your juices flowing:
the beginning of all art –
in the deep north
a rice-planting song
A few more rice-oriented haiku not by Basho:
Rice cools on counter,
smell of sweet air, steam flying,
warm in my kitchen.
The rice you like best,
Far from me, I feel you near.
I bought the big bag.
Paper pint, wire,
Tabs open, rice avalanche,
Sticky tower, bowl.
Write us your best rice-themed haiku in the comments below.