Among the many rice growing countries in the world, few are so steeped in tradition and yet as modern and efficient as Japan. Rice growing has been part of the Japanese identity for over 2,400 years and remains an important aspect in its diet and culture.
Japan produces Japonica rice, a subspecies of Oryza Sativa (Asian rice). The Japonica is a short plant with narrow, dark green leaves and medium-height tillers. Japonica grains are short and round, do not shatter easily and have low amylose content, making them moist and sticky when cooked. It is found in the cooler zones of the subtropics and in the temperate zones of Japan, China and Korea.
Other subspecies of Oryza are Indica (grown in the tropics and subtropics, including the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Java, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and in some African countries) and Javanica (grown in the high-elevation rice terraces of the Cordillera Mountains of northern Luzon, Philippines).
Although there are examples of non-Japonica rice grown in Japan, almost all Japanese rice are Japonica rice. There are around 300 varieties of Japonica in Japan alone, and can be divided into two major categories – regular rice (uruchimai) and glutinous rice (mochigome). Uruchimai is consumed as a daily staple and is used to make sushi and sake. It can also be used to make dishes like risotto and paella. Mochigome is used to make mochi and sekihan.
“The most common rice in circulation is the Koshi Hikari variety. Therefore, rice commonly eaten in Japanese households is Koshi Hikari. According to some sushi chefs, rice that is relatively less sticky with a lighter flavour like Sasa Nishiki and Tsugaru Roman are easier to use, but it also depends on the business’ decision.
“The making of sake also depends on the management’s decisions, but notable ones for making rice malt are Yamada Nishiki, Omachi, and Gohyakumangoku,” said Japan Rice and Rice Industry Export Promotion Association (JRE) managing director Minoru Yoneda. JRE is an association that promotes the exportation of Japanese rice, and is not involved in the production and distribution of rice.
Speaking at the Malaysia International Food and Beverage Trade Fair 2016, Yoneda explained that the current breeds of Japonica each have its own specialties as a result of multiple selective breeding processes.
“We have rice breeds that are resistant to cold temperatures, those with resistance to damage, those resistant to diseases, those with early or late growth stages, those with a high-yield, those that taste good, those with low allergen content and so on.
“Japonica rice is a Japanese staple which we feel does not get enough exposure globally. Therefore, we decided that the best way for people to learn about its qualities would be for them to experience it. Also, food is always a good way to promote cross-cultural understanding” he added.
The Calrose “Japanese rice” you find in supermarkets is a medium-grain Japonica cultivar developed in California in 1948. The name is a combination of “cal” for California and “rose” for the medium-grain shape. Calrose is now used as a generic term for California medium-grain Japonicas.
While not true Japanese rice, Calrose-type rice has been grown by Japanese American producers in California for many years, according to Wikipedia.
The makings of Japonica
Rice is grown in all prefectures of Japan, and the main paddy fields in Japan are on the plains of the major river basins.
In recent years, paddy fields have also spread to the hilly and mountainous areas. Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, is the country’s leading rice producer.
Also, the broad coastal plain of Shonai near the Sea of Japan has plenty of water and nutrient-rich soil and is considered to be one of Japan’s most fertile granaries.
Water affects the taste of rice, and “Iron Chef” trainee Hitoshi Sasagawa from Sasagawa Restaurant of Sheraton Imperial Kuala Lumpur believes that it is the main factor of Japan’s unique Japonica rice taste.
“Environments and resources vary from country to country. It would only make sense that the same type of rice would taste different if it was grown in Japan, than say, in Thailand,” he said.
“Depending on the natural conditions like the water, the surrounding temperatures, weather, and cultivation technology, it is possible for the components of the rice to differ even though they are the same breed.” While sticky, Japonica rice also has a glossy sheen and has a slightly sweetish flavour profile.
“Rice cultivation in Japan is done in the form of individually managed fields, fields that are jointly managed, and corporations. The scales of the fields are also different, and as of 2010, the average surface area of each managed paddy field is 105 acres,” said Yoneda.
Japan is the ninth largest producer of rice in the world in rice production.
Total rice production in 2015 – including those not intended to be used as edible rice – was approximately 8mil tonnes. The amount of commercially exported rice for fiscal year 2015 was 7640 tonnes, roughly 1% of the production volume. The average retail price for Japonica rice is 379 yen (RM15) per kg.
The rice seasons in Northern Japan last from May to September. In central Japan, it is from April to August. In southern Japan the rice season is from April to August. About 85% of the 2.3 million farms in Japan plant rice yearly.
Top quality rice requires top quality soil. Farmers till the soil and layer in straw to “loosen” the soil for water to seep easily. It is said that almost two-thirds of Japan’s water goes to its paddy fields.
During spring time, farmers tend to their seedlings. They sow the unhulled grains of rice from the previous harvest in water until they sprout. While waiting for the sprouts, they disinfect and dry the paddy field.
Once it is ready, water is piped into the field and the land is fertilised. It is crucial that the water is kept at a consisted depth for the seedlings to be planted at the same level. Farmers then plant the 10cm seedlings in the field. This process is done by hand in smaller fields, and rice planting machines are used in bigger ones.
The planted seedlings then take root and grow. A lot of water is needed to grow rice, and many farmers irrigate the fields with water drawn directly from nearby rivers. In the mountanious terrains, the paddies are arranged in terraced slopes for the water to flow from top to bottom.
An eye for shine
During the harvest, water is drained from the paddy fields for easier harvesting. Rice stalks are cut, and threshed. The rice is dried and hulled to make brown rice (genmai).
The Japanese take great pride in the quality, taste and stickiness of their rice. Gruff inspectors use magnifying glasses to check each grain and count the imperfect ones. Anything that falls below grade two is considered unfit for the table and the price plummets accordingly.
“In Japan, in order to retain its quality, rice is normally distributed in the form of brown rice and the rice is only polished whenever necessary,” said Yoneda.
Brown rice can be consumed in its unpolished state, and is considered a specialty in many restaurants and households. However, most Japanese rice is sold as white rice. Rice is polished using a machine (seimaiki) and during the polishing process, its volume decreases by at least 10%. It is because of this polishing that Japanese rice can be considered to have lesser gluten count.
“We hope that Malaysians will understand how much effort goes into producing Japanese Japonica rice. It plays such an important role in perfecting Japanese cuisine. We hope that as more Malaysians become exposed to the qualities of Japanese Japonica, their expectations will heighten and more Japanese restaurants will feel the need to import Japonica directly from Japan,” said Yoneda.
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