More than a staple food, rice is a way of life in Japan. From a baby’s first solid food, in the form of a soft rice porridge, to the national beverage: saké made from fermented rice, consumed in bars and restaurants throughout the country, rice lies at the culinary and cultural centre of life in the Land of Cherry Blossoms.
First cultivated in Japan in 300 BC, Japanese rice and its loyal derivation, saki, hold high symbolic as well as economic importance. Saki is consumed and even symbolically gifted to the deceased at funeral ceremonies. A custom as alive as the population’s daily rice consumption— eaten with every meal from breakfast and throughout the day and served in school lunches and government cafeterias. Even the Japanese stereotypes are intertwined with a culture centred on Rice: a rich landlord is a Rice paddy field owner in the collective imagination.
The importance of rice in Japan is no coincidence. The country’s land formation, position and climate are particularly suited to cultivating rice, thanks to the quality and quantity of water. The long and narrow nation formed by multiple islands at the end of the Eurasian peninsula with a montainous backbone allows water to remain soft. It flows quickly into paddyfields, without collecting the magnesium and calcium typical to water from larger land masses as found for example in the hardwater of Europe.
While a temperate climate, and with over 70% of the land made up of forest and a rainfall double that of the world average, make for the humid ideal for cultivating rice. While, thanks to a significant difference in temperature between day and night (typical of islands), Japanese rice is said to have a more pronounced sweetness than other short-grain rice.
Considering the high water content of Japanese cuisine, on average around 80% (and higher in certain foods such as tofu at 90%), compared with around 65% in Europe, water quality is of particular pride and importance, as the food quality relies on it. Thus the story of rice and water are intertwined in Japan as rice is both grown and purified (by swirling and soaking) and cooked in water. Mastering the purification aspect is key to perfecting the rice and can be challenging for those who are unfamiliar with its unique qualities: “I think Japanese rice is highly versatile if one knows how to manage the starch content vis-a-vis what they are trying to achieve. It takes a bit of trial and error – amount of washing and/or soaking needed but once that’s right, cooking with adequate pressure and time yields a rice that can be employed in many circumstances, explains the chef at London’s chic izakaya-style eatery in Embassy Gardens, Evernight.
More than 300 varieties of rice are grown in Japan, 220 of these are white table rice, as compared to glutinous rice, or sweet rice, used in desserts like Mochi for example. Quality is measured and ensured by a grading system with criteria based on appearance and shape, moisture content and taste, which is based on a subtle balance between starch, protein and fat.
As part of the Rice Versatility campaign a selection of London’s hottest up-and-coming restaurants took up the challenge to create unique dishes with Japanese rice or rice flour.
Here are some of the highlights:
Award winning baker Motoko McNulty and owner of The Happy Sky Bakery in London has baked a shokupan with the Japanese rice flour, which recipe you can find here. The ideal Japanese rice is fluffy, thanks to the high water content but with distinct grains, thanks to the quality and purification. It’s this fluffiness that can also be found in Japanese rice flour: “including Japanese rice flour in the mix with wheat flour, the shokupan (Japanese milk bread) was crispier on the outside and fluffier on the outside than usual,“ notes baker Motoko McNulty.
Chef Max Coen from the modern British bistro Dorian who bases his cuisine on seasonal ingredients carefully sourced directly from farms and day boats, prepared a fried English quail in Japanese rice flour, which gave the quail an incredibly light and super crunchy texture; brushed with brown butter hot sauce served with citrus and confit garlic aioli.
Chef, Kenneth Culhane of Michelin-starred restaurant Dysart, in Richmond prepared an entire tasting menu, including Yamazaki rice as part of the canapés, (said to holds its individual grains exceptionally well under cooking); a warm crispy sushi rice with mirin and marinated hand-dived Orkney scallop, black Périgord truffle emulsion and fresh truffle; Kintaro short grain sushi rice with Oxtail risotto, bone marrow and pickled chilli; followed by a Yamazaki mochi rice pudding.
Sven-Hanson Britt, chef-owner of just six tables Oxeye in West Elm has created donabe with Scottish Langoustine and Koshihikari Rice. The accent is put on the purity of the rice, with an repeated washing processes in a clay donabe using Hallstein water—said to be incredibly pure and clean for washing and cooking the rice. Oxeye puts British ingredients in pride of place on the menu and blending them with culinary influences from Sven’s global travels and his wife’s – chocolatier and co-founder of Cartografie Chocolates Kae Shibata – Japanese heritage.
Evernight prepared a Crab Onigiri. They detail:
While the cultural and history of Japanese rice cannot be exactly translated with the precise depth known to the Japanese, the reinterpretations and explorations made possible by the campaign were delightful and delicious.
In conclusion, Daisuke Hayashi, Chef-Owner of “Roketsu” and Japanese Cuisine Goodwill Ambassador explains that before each meal, Japanese people say “itadakimasu” a word that expresses gratitude and that literally means “these living things provide us sustenance.” It is perhaps this conception of Japanese rice as a living element, filled with flowing rivers, sweet monsoon rains and high mountains that provides such a unique eating experience.