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All About Rice in Japan: Popular Varieties, Flavors, Recipes, and More!

Rice is a major and indispensable part of Japan's food culture. Interest in Japanese rice, known for its superior taste, shape, texture, and aroma, is rising around the world. This article takes an in-depth look at Japanese rice, including its history, differences from rice grown abroad, popular cultivars, and how best to cook it.

Since When Has Rice Been Eaten in Japan?

〇 The History of Rice in Japan
Rice was introduced to Japan more than 3,000 years ago during the Jomon Period (c. 14,000–1,000 BCE). A leading theory is that it first arrived in Kyushu from China, then gradually spread east. Japan's warm and humid climate, which is suited to rice cultivation, was a key factor in the enduring popularity of rice farming through the ages. Rice is commonly grown in Japan through wetland rice cultivation.

〇 Per Capita Rice Consumption in Japan
An average person in Japan is said to consume about 54 kg of rice each year. This calculates into about 2.5 bowls of rice (60 g per bowl) every day. Although rice consumption has decreased over the years, the Japanese still generally have rice every day.

〇 Average Price of Rice in Japan
The average price of rice sold in Japan is between 1,600 JPY and 2,500 JPY for 5 kg (the amount a person living on their own would consume in a month.)

〇 Popular Rice Producing Areas in Japan
The prefectures of Niigata, Hokkaido, and Akita are famous for their rice production. These prefectures are also the top three producers of rice in Japan by quantity.

How Is Japanese Rice Different?

Rice varieties can generally be classified into the following four types:

〇 Japonica Rice: Short-grain rice that is sticky because the grains stick together when cooked. It has a soft texture. Japanese rice falls under this classification. It is produced primarily in Japan, the Korean Peninsula, and northern China.

〇 Indica Rice: Long-grain rice that does not stick together when cooked and is characterized by a distinct aroma and flaky texture. Produced primarily in India, Thailand, Vietnam, China, and the United States. Accounts for approximately 80% of rice produced globally.

〇 Javanica Rice: This rice has grains with a shape that is somewhere between that of Japonica Rice and Indica Rice. The grains are on the large side and it has a light flavor. It is produced primarily in Southeast Asia, Italy, and Spain.

〇 Ancient Rice: Rice that retains the characteristics of rice plants that were cultivated in ancient times. There is a wide variety of ancient rice, among which "red rice," "black rice," and "green rice" are well known and can be found in Japanese supermarkets.

Popular Japanese Rice Varieties

Currently, more than 270 different varieties of rice are produced in Japan, among which the following four are especially popular.

〇 Koshihikari: A cultivar that is by far the most popular and well known in Japan. Though Niigata Prefecture is famous for its Koshihikari, it is now produced across Japan. One bite of this rice and you will experience its deep flavor and delightful stickiness. It goes particularly well with "refreshing" foods such as Japanese pickles.

〇 Akitakomachi: A cultivar created in the process of improving Koshihikari. Produced primarily in Akita Prefecture. Distinguished by its sweet flavor and light aftertaste. Has a slightly firmer texture. Goes particularly well with yoshoku (Western-style Japanese food), such as hamburger steak, and soups. I myself am an Akitakomachi fan! I love the sweet flavor that fills the mouth with a single bite.

〇 Sasanishiki: A cultivar produced primarily in the prefectures of Yamagata and Miyagi. It is not as sticky as other Japanese rice varieties and has a light flavor. As such, it is often made into sushi rice, with many sushi restaurants using sasanishiki. Its light flavor makes it a good accompaniment to deep-fried food.

〇 Hitomebore: A cultivar created by crossing Koshihikari and another cultivar called Hatsuboshi. Produced primarily in the Tohoku Region. Characterized by a pleasant sweetness and stickiness. Plump and fluffy when cooked. I recommend using it to make "takikomi gohan" (rice seasoned and cooked with various ingredients). Each grain of rice seems to have its own presence and mixes perfectly with the ingredients.

How to Cook Rice Perfectly

Here are some tricks for cooking rice so that is perfectly plump, fluffy, and moist.

<1> Measure the rice: Be sure to accurately measure the rice using a measuring cup or scale. One "go" (a traditional Japanese measuring unit), which makes enough for two servings of rice, weighs 150 g.

<2> Wash the rice: Start by washing quickly with plenty of water, then drain. Next, wash with just a little water, pressing the rice with the palm of your hand as if you are polishing it. Be careful not to "polish" the rice too much. Stop when the water becomes a bit cloudy.

<3> Pour in the water: Measure and pour the right amount of water for the quantity of rice you are cooking.

<4> Soak the rice: Soak the rice in the water for 30 minutes. The rice will absorb the water and become more plump and fluffy when cooked.

<5> Steam: Leave the lid on for 10 to 15 minutes after the rice is cooked so that it can steam.

<6> Mix from the bottom: Mix the rice from the bottom of the cooker so that it is exposed to air and the excess water evaporates.

These little extra steps will dramatically change the flavor of the rice, so be sure to try them! I did, and the rice tasted much better than before.

How to Enjoy Rice Even More

It's very rare to eat white rice on its own in Japan. Instead, it is enjoyed in a variety of different ways, such as with side dishes or by flavoring the rice itself. Here are some ways in which rice is commonly enjoyed in Japan:

〇 Onigiri: Onigiri, or "rice ball" in English, is a dish made by putting ingredients, such as umeboshi (pickled plums) or salmon, in rice, pressing it into a triangular shape, and wrapping it with nori (seaweed). It is easy to make, so I often pack some for lunch.

〇 Takikomi Gohan: Rice cooked together with ingredients such as seafood, meat, and vegetables and flavored with a variety of seasonings such as soy sauce. The rice that has taken on the flavors of the ingredients tastes fantastic!

〇 Furikake: Furikake is made by drying fish, meat, and vegetables and grinding them into flakes or powder. The flavors of the ingredients will fill your mouth when you eat it sprinkled on rice.

〇 With foods that go well with rice: Enjoy rice with foods that go well with it, such as natto (fermented soybeans), umeboshi, Japanese pickles, and mentaiko (spicy pollock roe). I often enjoy rice with raw egg and soy sauce. The egg gives it a smooth, almost silky texture and soft, buttery flavor.

There are endless ways to enjoy Japanese rice. Give these ways a try!

Rice has a long history in Japan. There are several kinds of Japanese rice, each with a unique flavor and texture that goes well with different foods. The more you learn about rice, the more there is to know, so experiment to find your favorite rice and way of eating it!

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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