Everything You Need to Know About Japanese Rice
Rice is an undeniable staple of Japanese cuisine, serving as the foundation of several popular dishes all around the country. Most people assume that all rice is the same, however, Japanese rice has its own special characteristics, history, and uses.
What is Japanese rice?
Japanese rice is a specific type of glutinous rice that is widely used and cultivated in Japan. Although the most common variety is the short-grain, there are over 700 varieties that have been identified to date. Since the cultivation of rice is a very common practice in Japan, new varieties are being developed each year.
Characteristics of the ideal rice-growing environment are mountains and hillsides with an abundance of precipitation. Farmers are able to utilize these sloped landscapes by creating terraces, or various growing surfaces along the side of the mountain or hill. Nutrient-dense waters from nearby rivers and streams are used to enrich the rice, eliminating the need for chemical pesticides or fertilizers. This is why rice is one of the most eco–friendly and low-impact food products produced in Japan today.
Reigning in popularity since the late 1970s, Koshihikari is one of the most well-known and in-demand rice varieties on the market today; it is known for its starchy, shiny, and sweet qualities and can be used for many different dishes. Other popular cultivars include Nanatsuboshi, a moist variety that can also be enjoyed cold, Hitomebore, a robust and large-grain strain with a more subtle taste, and Akitakomachi, light and easily digestible variety perfectly suited for breakfast. In Japan, the variety used always depends on the meal and the time of day that it will be served.
How Can I Identify Japanese Rice?
While many cultures around the world incorporate rice as a staple in their diets, it is important to distinguish Japanese rice from other varieties—you definitely would not want to make sushi with basmati rice. One way to successfully identify Japanese rice from other types is to understand the three main categories of rice around the world: long-grain, medium-grain, and short-grain rice.
Long-grain is perhaps the most common style of rice that the average person visualizes when they think of rice, and this is mostly due to its popularity in North America. It has a long, thin, and cylindrical shape with pointed tips and is fairly moist, yet not sticky when cooked. Varieties such as Basmati, Jasmine, and Mexican rice are the ideal long-grain rice to accompany a curry or to make pilaf with.
Short-grain rice is the opposite—nearly equal in width and length, making it more plump and round than its long-grain counterpart. Japanese rice is a perfect example of this category, with grains sticking together while still remaining their firmness and texture. This is mostly because of their higher starch content in comparison to other rice varieties.
Medium-grain rice is somewhere in between the long and short varieties, with a length of about 2 to 3 times its width. These grains are widely used in European and Chinese dishes, with Bomba (for Paella) and Arborio (for risotto) as two of the most common cultivars. When cooked, the grains are moist, yet robust and somewhat sticky, perfect for sauce-based dishes such as the Italian risotto.
Popular Dishes That Call for Japanese Rice
There are several well-known dishes that must be eaten with Japanese rice. Although we have picked out some of our favorites, you can get creative and use them in various other dishes of your choosing. By understanding the characteristics of this unique rice and its uses, you will gather the inspiration to have fun with it yourself!
- Onigiri -
Onigiri is a popular round or triangular Japanese snack that consists of rice and fillings. Typically, the rice is mixed with furikake, a Japanese seasoning with spices, sesame seeds, and chilli, and then filled with meat or fish, such as chicken or tuna, along with a sauce, such as mayonnaise. These are popular on-the-go meals that can be found at most Japanese grocery stores in Japan, as well as the Western world. It’s important to use high-quality Japanese rice for Onigiri in order to shape them well. Premium rice will allow you to form them into the desired shape of choice without being too mushy or hard when served cold.
- Sushi -
Sushi is undoubtedly one of the most popular Japanese cuisines that have spread all over the world. It comes in many forms, however, the most common form of western sushi is maki, or “rolls,” which involve rolling vegetable or seafood fillings in a seaweed sheet coated with rice. Making your own sushi at home is a fun experience to share with your family or friends, as well as a cost-efficient way to enjoy your favorite Japanese dish. In order to have a successful sushi experience, it is important to use a trusted brand of su-meshi, or sushi rice. Good quality Japanese sushi rice is crucial to successfully rolling and slicing your maki.
- Donburi (Rice bowl) -
Donburi, also known as the Japanese rice bowl, is a common lunch or dinner meal all across Japan. It consists of a rice base, which is then topped with a combination of meat, fish, vegetables, and sauce of choice. These are popular meals to pack for lunch for school or work, or even to get as a quick meal at the local restaurant. Popular toppings include sakedon (salmon), gyudon (beef), and tendon (tempura). In order to make a successful donburi bowl, you must select good-quality rice that will stick together enough to hold the toppings without getting too soft and mushy after absorbing the sauce.
- Okayu (porridge/congee) -
Okayu, also known as congee, is a popular Japanese healing food that is essentially a very simple rice porridge. To make okayu, all you need is a trusted rice variety and some water. This is important because you want the rice to disintegrate, while also providing enough of a gelatinous property that really makes this dish a porridge. In Japan, this recipe is used to help anyone who is recovering from the flu or other digestive issues. The simple and easy-to-digest nature of the porridge restores energy in the body. However, it is also common to serve with a variety of tasty toppings, such as fresh herbs, seaweed, scallions, meat, or egg. Get creative with your okayu!
Experiment With Japanese Rice Today!
There are so many different varieties of Japanese rice, each with its own suggested uses. If you are someone who loves Japanese cuisine and is interested in learning more, start experimenting with some of the above recipes. Feel free to make them your own. Once you have high-quality rice as your base, the rest will come together!