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Rice: at the heart of Japanese culture

June 23, 2016

For at least two thousand years, rice has been a staple of the Japanese diet, a ready supply of carbohydrates to fuel the demanding lifestyles of farmers, fishermen, samurai, and salarymen alike.

Its centrality to the nation's diet is reflected in the fact that one word for rice -- gohan -- also carries the meaning of "meal." To many, a bowl of refined white rice served alongside miso soup, pickles, and broiled fish and vegetables represents the quintessential Japanese spread, and this combination is equally common at breakfast or dinner.

Diverse tastes

Historically, rice was often eaten as unmilled brown genmai or mixed with millet and other grains as zakkokumai, but the advent of mechanical milling techniques put white rice, long the preserve of the wealthier classes, within reach of ordinary Japanese. Its simple flavor makes it the ideal complement to any number of dishes.

Rice can also be packed into a hearty ball around fillings such as fish, pickled plum, cod roe, or kelp to make onigiri, Japan's traditional "grab-and-go" answer to the sandwich, handed by caring mothers to children and spouses as they rush out of the door for a hard day of study or work.

And to make sushi, a vinegared rice base, or shari, is finished with various neta (toppings) such as raw fish, seafood, rolled omelet or vegetables. The most recognizable form of what is now a globally loved dish harks back to the nineteenth-century street vendors of old Edo (present-day Tokyo).

In addition to its role as a filling accompaniment, rice also features in the production of a range of other condiments, dishes, and drinks. Rice bran is a common medium for pickling vegetables, while steamed rice is fermented using koji mold to produce mirin vinegar and sake.

Mochigome –– a glutinous strain of Japan's prevailing Japonica rice –– is pounded into a stodgy dough to make sticky mochi rice cakes or teamed with sweet anko bean paste, kinako soy flour and more to make traditional wagashi sweets such as daifuku, ohagi, monaka, and manju.

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