Here in Japan rice is much, much more than food. When you consider that the Japanese word gohan means both ‘meal’ and ‘cooked rice’ it starts to become clear how intrinsically this little white grain is linked not only to nutrition in Japan but also to the Japanese culture and heritage. So much so that washoku – traditional Japanese food of which cooked rice forms the staple part – was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2013.
Japanese rice cultivation has a two-thousand-year history, but looks very different today from in the past. The urbanization of Japan and the move from human labour to machine power means that rice farming no longer dominates the landscape or people’s daily lives. Farms and paddy fields are small and rice production is intensely mechanized. The Japanese (or ‘Japonica’) short-grain rice farms produce is often known as sushi rice outside Japan, and comes in both ordinary and glutinous forms. In supermarkets, you can buy genmai (brown rice) or hakumai (white rice) – the latter starts life as genmai but is polished to remove the bran.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that rice is a plain and uninteresting food, but in reality it’s incredibly versatile. Cooked rice forms the major part of many Japanese meals, for example as part of donburi (a bowl of rice topped with meat, fish or vegetables) or onigiri (a round or triangular lunchtime snack). In sushi, rice is used for nigiri (oblong, compacted rice topped with a slice of raw fish) and maki (rice rolled with vegetables, fish or egg, and nori seaweed). Rice flour is used to produce senbei (rice crackers) and desserts such as mochi (soft, round cakes often filled with bean paste) or dango (sweet dumplings usually served on a skewer). Rice can be fermented to produce sake and even roasted for use in tea. Rice products in all forms are widely available in Japanese supermarkets, and many can be made at home.
How to cook rice
Ingredients: 1 cup of rice for 2 people.
Wash the rice until the water is no longer cloudy. This can take a long time so if you are rushed, just wash 3-4 times to reduce the cloudiness.
In a rice cooker: The markings on the inside of the rice cooker’s bowl will indicate how much water to use per cup of rice. Place rice and water in the bowl and simply press ‘Start’. (On Japanese-language rice cookers this is likely to be the biggest, brightest button and may have スタート, ‘Start’, written below the kanji.) The rice cooker will calculate the amount of time needed, which may be up to an hour, so you can happily leave it to it’s own devices.
In a pot: Use about 1 1/3 cups of water for 1 cup of rice. After rinsing, ideally leave the rice to soak for 30-60 mins before turning on the heat. This helps the rice to absorb the water consistently during cooking. To cook, bring the water to the boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for 10 mins. Turn off the heat, then leave to stand for 10 mins with the lid on before serving. The remaining water will be absorbed into the rice during this time.
How to make onigiri
Think of onigiri like a rice sandwich. You can fill it with pieces of cold cooked meat or fish, tuna mayonnaise, raw or cooked vegetables, pickles or pieces of omelette. Triangular onigiri are known as omusubi . Traditionally, ancestors were believed to live in the mountains and so omusubi were made in a mountain shape as a gift to accompany prayers. ・Stir a pinch of salt into leftover rice, or cook 1 quantity of rice as above. Prepare a 30 cm/12″ long piece of clingfilm/plastic wrap. ・Place the clingfilm/wrap over your palm and take a handful of rice. Press the rice into a flat, roughly square shape in your palm. ・Add your chosen filling, making sure to leave a border round the edges of the rice, and carefully fold the rice in half diagonally over the filling to make a triangle shape. ・Gather the clingfilm/Plastic wrap around the rice and twist the ends together so that the rice is enclosed. Press down gently along each edge of the triangle to ensure that the filling is well sealed in and smooth the edges and corners to pack the rice tightly together. Serve rolled in sesame seeds or wrapped in a sheet of nori, ‘seaweed’.
How to make rice burger buns
For a Japanese take on a burger, rice burger buns can be filled with chopped meat, fish, shrimp or vegetables. Simply stir-fry your choice of filling with sliced onion and pepper/capsicum, finely chopped ginger and garlic, and soy or teriyaki sauce, until cooked through. (Alternatively, you can use ordinary burgers!) ・Cook 1 quantity of rice as above. This will make 4 buns (for 2 people). ・Prepare 4 sections of clingfilm/plastic wrap (30 cm/12″ long) and place a quarter of the rice in each section. ・Gather the clingfilm/wrap around the rice and twist the ends together, enclosing the rice. Use your hands to flatten and compact the rice so that it forms a round, flat bun shape about 1 cm/0.5″ thick. Keep pressing and smoothing the bun for up to 5 mins to ensure it is well compacted. Repeat for the other 3 buns. ・Mix 1 tbsp of soy sauce with 1 tbsp of rice vinegar and 1 tsp of sugar and heat in a pan. Fry the buns for 2 mins on each side, repeating until slightly crisp on the outside. Then fill and serve.
Try traditional omusubi and learn more about the history of Japanese rice cultivation at Inazumaya!
Daiichishibata Bldg 1F, Nakatsu5-1-2, Kita-ku, Osaka
Mon.-Fri. 7am to 2pm
Sat. & Sun. 8am to 2pm
By Life in Kansai