The Japanese don’t just consume o-kome rice all day, every day. They practically venerate it. This may baffle visitors, not least the members of the US and Australian rice lobby who flock to Japan in droves to try and prize open Japan’s lucrative domestic market.
Yet for the Japanese, imports just don’t rate. It’s Japanese-produced okome or nothing at all. Koshihikari, Satsuyahime and Yamagata's Tsuyahime are some of the most popular strains.
In its uncooked form it is called okome, with the o- denoting respect, and kome meaning rice. Cooked Japanese style, it is called gohan (the go- prefix here the highest indicator of respect), denoting rice, and thus by inference, any meal. Blue-collar workers, however, may use the more informal meshi, something similar to ‘grub’. When it is included in the Japanese versions of western dishes known as yoshoku, it is termed raisu.
Japanese-produced rice possesses amylopectin, an element that gives it its wonderful texture and slightly glutinous quality that the Japanese adore, to the extent that they each wolf down, on average, 70kg of it per person per year. Culturally, most Japanese feel a meal is simply incomplete without the inclusion of okome. It is the building block on which a Japanese meal is based, the heart of the Japanese culinary DNA.
Yet the grain’s omnipresence is not merely a dietary and culinary convention. In ancient Japan, its cultivation was regarded as a religious act, and even in ultra-modern Tokyo a child will often be taught to scoop a small amount of white okome from the suihanki electric rice cooker to offer to the sprits of deceased ancestors in the butsudan the family’s home altar.
Hakumai, or jubuzuki, is plain, white rice (yet no Japanese writer would ever describe it as ‘plain’ – lucent, perhaps? Delicately scented? Robust even, but never plain) that is used in every dish from the humble ekiben station lunchbox to the finest kaiseki formal cuisine. A typical simple meal might consist of, for example, a bowl of hakumai topped with tsukudani fish and vegetables simmered in soy sauce and mirin, served with a bowl of miso soup, accompanied by a side dish of tsukemono pickles. Rice is used in zosui soup, in ochazuke (where green tea is poured onto white rice, in onigiri the ubiquitous rice balls, and vinegared in sushi.
Genmai, unpolished, unrefined, brown rice, is becoming increasingly popular amongst health-concsious urbanites. It is also the grain of choice for shojin-ryori Zen vegetarian cuisine.
Mochigome is the glutinous version of regular rice that is used to make the sticky mochi rice cakes, which are particularly served at New Year (not always to best effect – ‘choked on mochi’ is an unfortunately common cause of death among the elderly). Mochi is extremely popular, and rice cakes are served toasted as yakimochi, and wrapped in salted cherry leaves as sakura mochi, a spring speciality of Kyoto. In the dish ozoni, mochi is served is served in a broth, with precise ingredients varying by region.
Traditionally, rice was steamed in a large cauldron that was set over an earthenware hearth fuelled with wood choppings, or in a kamado stove at the heart of a farmhouse kitchen. Today, style has succumbed to convenience, and nearly every restaurant and private home relies on the suihanki rice cooker. Rice grains are rinsed thoroughly in cold water, swished by hand in a circular scooping motion until the mix loses its cloudy appearance. The grains are then placed in the suihanki with, in the case of hakumai, an equal amount of water (with genmai, 50% as much again). After cooking, it sits (in Japanese – murasu, to steam) for 10 minutes, and the rice is then ready.
Rice is of course the main ingredient in sake, and specific strains known as sakamai are used in the brewing process, each imparting their own subtle flavors. Yamada Nishiki, produced in Hyogo, Okayama and Fukuoka is the best known sake rice.