making mochi

The importance of rice in Japan can not be emphasized enough. It is the staple food; the source of traditional spirit, sake; and it is left as offering to gods and ancestors. It has even been said that Japanese people are like a bowl of rice — uniform, homogenous and sticking closer together.

In the old days white rice was eaten mainly by people in the cities. The militarization of Japan before World War II exposed conscripts from the countryside to white rice and they liked it. However the switch to white rice, which is polished and relatively nutrition free, led to vitamin deficiencies and widespread cases of beriberi, sometimes called “the Edo affliction,” because it was more commonly eaten in Edo (Tokyo) than in rural areas.

Japanese have more words for rice than love. Children have traditionally been told that the rice they eat was grown meticulously by hard-working farmers and not a single grain should be wasted. Some anthropologists have suggested that Japanese civilization and social structure has its origins in wet-rice farming introduced from China and Korea 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. Rice once served as currency.

Japanese consume about 9 million tons of rice a year, compared to 200 million tons in China. About three quarters of Japanese eat rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. One of the first things a housewife or a working mother does when she wakes up is make her family rice for the day in a rice cooker.

The Japanese are eating less rice than they used to. Per capita rice consumption dropped from 114.9 kilograms (about six bowls a day) in 1960 to 60 kilograms (still a lot of rice) in 2008. The decrease has been attributed to higher incomes, a wider availability of all kinds of food, and the introduction of fast foods. These days many Japanese eat bread and noodles instead of rice.

A study by Japan’s National Cancer Center, found that women who eat three or more bowls of rice a day have a 50 percent greater chance of developing diabetes. The study confirms the link that large amounts of carbohydrates increase the risk of developing diabetes.

Good Websites and Sources: Rice Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Wikipedia article on Japanese Rice Wikipedia ; Essay on Rice and History aboutjapan.japansociety.org Japanese Rice Culture worldcom.ch/negenter ; Noodles Wikipedia article on Japanese Noodles ; Yoshida Udon Page pdmz.com/udon ; Making Soba fxcuisine.com ; Cheap Eats: Soba Noodles bloglander.com/cheapeats ; Worldaramen, a Site About Ramen worldramen.net ; Shin Yokohama Ramen Museum bento.com ; Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum; Nissin Noodles nissin-noodles.com and Japan Visitor japanvisitor.com

Links in this Website: DIET AND EATING HABITS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ;JAPANESE FOODS AND DISHES Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; FOOD SAFETY IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; RICE AND NOODLES IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SOYBEANS, SOY SAUCE, NATTO, MISO AND TOFU IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE VEGETABLES, FRUITS AND MUSHROOMS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE BEEF, MEAT AND DAIRY PRODUCTS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SEAFOOD IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SUSHI Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; FUGU (BLOWFISH) IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; RESTAURANTS AND FAST FOOD IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan

History of Rice in Japan

rice and nori
It was long thought that rice farming was introduced to Japan from Korea and China between 300 and 100 B.C. In December 1987, a 2000-year-old rice ball was discovered in the town of Rokuseimachi in Ishikawa Prefecture. In Kyushu ancient people at red-kerneled rice.

Many archeologist looked upon the introduction of wet land rice farming techniques as the technological advancement that marked the beginning of the Yayoi period and the end of the Jomon period--important periods in ancient Japanese history.

For a long time the earliest evidence of rice farming was dated to around 300 B.C. which worked nicely into models that it was introduced when the Koreans, forced to migrate by upheaval in China in the Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.). Later a number of Korean objects, dated between 800 and 600 B.C., were found. These discoveries upset the neatness of the model.

Then in the early 2000s, grains of wetland rice were found in pottery from northern Kyushu dated to 1000 B.C. This called into question the dating of the entire Yayoi period and caused some archeologist to speculate that maybe wet-land rice farming was introduced directly from China. This assertion is backed up somewhat by similarity in skeletal remains of 3000-year-old skeletons found in Quinghai province in China and Yayoi bodies unearthed in northern Kyushu and Yamaguchi prefecture.

Importance of Rice in Japanese Culture

Kate Elwood wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: A traditional name for Japan is Toyoashihara no Mizuho no Kuni--the land where abundant rice shoots ripen beautifully. Emiko Onuki-Tierney is an anthropologist who has done extensive research on the Japanese attitude toward rice, including writing a book titled Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time. According to Onuki-Tierney, in one story in the Kojiki collection of myths about the origin of Japan, the goddess Amaterasu is the mother of a "grain soul" and Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, is the son of one. Amaterasu gives Jimmu rice grains and tells him to transform the wilderness into a land of rice. Onuki-Tierney points out that unlike other creation myths in the world, Japan's mythology is not about the creation of the universe but about changing wilderness through rice cultivation. While other Asian countries obviously also have rice, Japan's own rice has been viewed as distinct. Westerners were not traditionally thought of as bread-eaters but rather meat-eaters, as opposed to rice-eating Japanese people, due to Buddhist prohibitions in Japan on the consumption of meat. [Source: Kate Elwood, December 13, 2011]

The shamoji rice spatula is a symbol of the Japanese housewife. While less prevalent than it used to be, it can still be seen in various depictions of smiling women wearing kappogi long-sleeved aprons and holding the shamoji aloft, at the ready to serve up some warm nourishment. This contrasts vividly with the traditional Western images of angry housewives brandishing rolling pins, not equipped to joyfully roll out some pastry to supply their family members with a delicious savory or sweet pie, but rather to whack a wayward husband over the head. Occasionally Japanese women are portrayed using a menbo rolling pin in a similar way, but such representations are far less frequent than those of cheerful shamoji holders.

Bread Versus Rice and Japan

Kate Elwood wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: Both bread and rice symbolize livelihood, as can be seen in a variety of phrases such as "earn one's bread," "know which side your bread is buttered on" and "take bread from someone's mouth," as well as meshi no tane ("rice seed": a means of living), meshi ga kuenai ("cannot eat rice": cannot make a living), and fude ippon de meshi o kuu ("eat rice by one ink brush": make a living as a writer). "Eating the bread of idleness" also corresponds nicely to muda meshi o kuu, to eat useless rice, which means to be unproductive. Bread and rice also both signify a communal experience. The idiom "break bread together" signifies sharing a meal, similar to onaji kama no meshi o kuu, to eat from the same rice-cooking pot. [Source: Kate Elwood, December 13, 2011]

But cultural associations of rice perhaps go one step further. Linguists Dmitrij Dobrovol'skij and Elisabeth Piiraninen have made a study of cross-cultural and cross-linguistic figurative language. They note that rice is further associated with the whole living situation, as exhibited in the phrase hiyameshi o kuwasareru, being made to eat cold rice, a way of expressing being treated coldly. Tanin no meshi o kuu, eating the rice of other people, means to gain experience and become mature by leaving one's family.

Unlike these rice expressions, a focus on undesirable or external sources of sustenance is not seen in common bread idioms. "Bread and water" may be understood to be the most minimal provisions, traditionally associated with provisions for prisoners, but the expression does not figuratively describe a chilly reception. There is no idiom related to eating bread somewhere else and to say it would simply suggest a sandwich obtained elsewhere, not a vital representation of becoming independent from Mom and Dad.

In this way, perhaps warm rice eaten at home has a cultural resonance not easily supplanted. Yet, as always, the picture is not completely black and white. When I spent a year in Europe for research a little while ago I made rice every day, thanks to a rice cooker a colleague returning to Japan after her own sabbatical had kindly passed on to me. On the other hand, many Japanese women I met in Europe had by and large happily abandoned rice for bread in their daily lives, and they expressed surprise and amusement that my daughter and I persisted in eating rice at least once a day. If rice is a symbol of physical and spiritual sustenance perhaps it can be said that variety is the rice of life.

Rice as a Global Food

planting rice
Rice is a member of a family of plants that also includes marijuana, grass and bamboo. There are over 120,000 different varieties of rice including black and red strains as well as white ones. Rice plants can grow to a height of ten feet and shoot up as much as eight inches in a single day. [Sources: John Reader, Man on Earth (Perennial Libraries, Harper and Row, ⊕ Peter White, National Geographic, May 1994]

Rice is the world’s No.1 most important food crop and dietary staple, ahead of wheat, corn and bananas. It is the chief source of food for about 3 billion people, half of the world’s population, and accounts for 20 percent of all the calories that mankind consumes. In Asia, more than 2 billion people rely on rice for 60 to 70 percent of their calories. If consumption trends continue 4.6 billion people will consume rice in 2025 and production must increase 20 percent to keep up with demand.

Rice grows almost anywhere: the flooded plains of Bangladesh, the terraced countryside of northern Japan, the Himalayan foothills of Nepal and even the deserts of Egypt and Australia. Rice straw was traditionally used make sandals, hats, ropes and patches for thatch roofs.

Rice comes from the Oryza sativa plant. The two main strains are the japonica and indica subspecies. There are dry land varieties of rice and wet land varieties. Dry land varieties thrive on hillsides and in fields. Most of the world's rice is a wetland variety, which grows in irrigated paddies (55 percent of the world's rice supply) and rainfed paddies (25 percent). Paddy (a Malay word that means "unmilled rice") is a small plot of land with a dike and a few inches of water in it.

Websites: RiceWeb: www.riceweb.org ; Riceonline: www.riceonline.com

History of Rice

harvesting rice
Rice is believed to have been first cultivated in China or possibly somewhere else in eastern Asia around 10,000 years ago. The earliest concrete evidence of rice farming comes from a 7000-year-old archeological site near the lower Yangtze River village of Hemudu in Zheijiang province in China. When the rice grains unearthed there were found they were white but exposure to air turned them black in a matter minutes. These grains can now be seen at a museum in Hemudu.

Evidence of rice dated to 7000 B.C. has been found near the village of Jiahu in Henan Province northern China near the Yellow River. It is not clear whether the rice was cultivated or simply collected. Rice gains dated to 6000 B.C. have been discovered Changsa in the Hunan Province. In the early 2000s, a team form South Korea’s Chungbuk National University announced that it had found the remains of rice grains in the Paleolithic site of Sorori dated to around 12,000 B.C.

Wild rice grows in forest clearings but was adapted to grow in shallow flooded fields. The introduction of paddy agriculture dramatically changed the landscape and ecology of entire regions.

DNA analysis shows that these early forms of rice were different from varieties eaten today. Africans cultivated another species of rice around 1500 B.C. The Moors introduced rice to Europe via Spain.

Rice as Food

rice balls
The seeds in rice are contained in branching heads called panicles. Rice seeds, or grains, are 80 percent starch. The remainder is mostly water and small amounts of phosphorus, potassium, calcium and B vitamins.

Freshly harvested rice grains include a kernel made of an embryo (the heart of the seed), the endosperm that nourishes the embryo, a hull and several layers of bran which surround kernel. White rice consumed by most people is made up exclusively of kernels. Brown rice is rice that retains a few nutritious layers of bran.

The bran and hull are removed in the milling process. In most places this residue is fed to livestock, but in Japan the bran is made into salad and cooking oil believed to prolong life. In Egypt and India it is made into soap. Eating unpolished rice prevents beriberi.

The texture of rice is determined by a component in the starch called amylose. If the amylose content is low (10 to 18 percent) the rice is soft and slightly sticky. If it is high (25 to 30 percent) the rice is harder and fluffy. Chinese, Koreans and Japanese prefer their rice on the sticky side. People in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan like theirs fluffy, while people in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Europe and the United States like theirs in between. Laotians like their rice gluey (2 percent amylose).

Kinds of Rice in Japan

Grains of Japonica rice favored in Japan are short and sticky. The rice has a gelatinous texture and round grains and is sold mostly five- or ten-kilogram bags. Japanese get very excited about newly harvested rice which they say has a very better taste, texture and aroma than rice that has been stored for a while.

Rice is sold in different grades at different prices. The sub-tropical island of Sumiyoshi is source of one of Japan's most popular and expensive rices.

Japanese are very particular about their rice and tastes are fickle and always changing. Farmers and sellers are having a harder and harder time making keeping up with trends while fending off foreign competition.

Top Brands of Japanese Rice

Aigamo koshihikari is regarded as Japan's best rice. It sells for about $5 a kilo and is harvested from paddies where ducks eat insect pests, negating the use of pesticides. A two-hectare plot produces just nine tons of grain. Other quality names include Hitomebore and Akitakomachi. Uonuma koshihikari, another quality rice, costs about $6 a kilo. It is grown in the Minami-Uonuma area around Shioawa, Niigata Prefecture in a basin between low mountains with a good supply of water and extreme high daytime and low nighttime temperatures that are vital for growing quality rice.

Minoru Akita wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Thanks to its strong disease resistance and chewy texture, Koshihikari accounts for nearly 40 percent of the nation's total rice acreage. Koshihikari rice from the Uonuma district of Niigata Prefecture has long sat at the pinnacle of Japanese rice, demanding far higher prices than other kinds. Uonuma-grown Koshihikari often costs double the price of other brands, and sometimes up to 8,000 yen for five kilograms--four times the price of others.” [Source: Minoru Akita, Yomiuri Shimbun, September 4, 2012]

Recently, other brands have sought to unseat Koshihikari, with some taking direct aim at rice from Uonuma. The Tsuyahime brand is at the forefront of these efforts. Developed as a team effort by farmers and local government officials in Yamagata Prefecture, the brand soared to prominence in 2010. Rice crops nationwide suffered from the severe summer heat that year. Tsuyahime, however, gained first-class marks for 98 percent of its crop.

Yoshio Okuyama, a 60-year-old farmer in Kahoku, Yamagata Prefecture, grows Tsuyahime in 3-1/2 of his 25 hectares of rice paddies. "It's a bit firm, so it's popular among young people. It's easy to grow because it doesn't get very tall and collapse easily," he said. Other brands that have risen in status recently are Mitsuhikari, a high-yield rice developed by Mitsui Chemicals Inc., and Hokkaido-grown Nanatsuboshi, which has been exported to China.

Sasanishiki Rice — the 'Yokozuna' of Grains — Losing its Prestige

In September 2012,Minoru Akita wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “In the face of declining domestic consumption, the rice market is growing more competitive every year, with traditional favorite Sasanishiki continuing to struggle and new brands making names for themselves. The makeup of the rice market, however, is very much in flux, with Sasanishiki rice, once considered the yokozuna of rice brands on par with a popular Koshihikari, losing popularity and newer brands emerging as major players. [Source: Minoru Akita, Yomiuri Shimbun, September 4, 2012]

After a poor Sasanishiki crop in 1993 due to cold weather, many farmers stopped growing the brand, and in recent years it has hovered around the No. 20 spot in rice popularity rankings. As a result, consumers in large cities now rarely see the brand on supermarket shelves. Choichi Takahashi, a 62-year-old farmer in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, only grew Sasanishiki for many years, but he mostly switched to the Hitomebore brand after the 1993 harvest. "Usually, a 0.1 hectare paddy yields about eight or nine bags of rice [about 500 kilograms], but that year we only got two or three bags [120 to 180 kilograms]," Takahashi said. Though he continues to produce Sasanishiki, the bitter experience made him reduce his reliance on the brand. "Sasanishiki is also vulnerable to high temperatures and can collapse easily. I don't want to grow too much of it," he said.

The Sasanishiki brand was first produced in Miyagi Prefecture in 1963, at a time when demand for rice was increasing. It became popular for its light taste, and as much as 200,000 hectares of Sasanishiki was under cultivation in 1989, making it one of the nation's most popular brands. But the poor crop in 1993 labeled the brand as "weak in cold temperatures." In 1999, Sasanishiki dropped out of the top 10 most popular rice brands. Nevertheless, some farmers and restaurants remain devoted fans. Yoshiki Nishizuka, a sushi restaurant owner in Tokyo's Ginza district, lauds the high quality of Sasanishiki. "It brings out the excellence in sushi toppings," he said.

Cooking Rice in Japan

rice polishing vending machine
The Japanese like their rice very white and polished. Some Japanese add some sake, fish powder or salt to the rice to enhance the flavor. Rice used to make sushi has a little vinegar and sugar in it.

Most Japanese steam their rice in cookers specially designed to cook rice. Before the rice is cooked it is washed with room temperature water and massaged several times and soaked for 30 minutes to several hours. Japanese like their rice soft and the washing and massaging removes the hard rice bran around the grains. Rice bran has little nutrition. Ironically some Japanese add brown rice to their white rice to make it more nutritious.

These days Japanese are finding rice to be increasingly too inconvenient and time-consuming to make. A recent innovation, rice that requires no washing, is made using a special machine that uses the stickiness of the bran to skim the bran off rice whirled around in a cylinder.

Eating Rice in Japan

Japanese tend to eat their rice in a bowl separately from the main dish. They often take one bite of rice and then one bite of the main dish so it mixes in their mouth. Common rice dishes include katsu-don (rice topped y a fried pork cutlet), oyako-don (rice topped with egg and chicken), niku-don (rice topped with sliced beef), ten-don (rice topped with tempura shrimp and vegetables).

Rice balls (“origiri”) are very popular in Japan. They are made from rice mixed with fish flakes molded together in a pyramid shape. They often contain grilled salmon or a pickled plum in the middle. They are sold at convenience stores and are popular with busy people on the go.

“Mochi” os a soft, chewy blob-shaped rice cake which can be eaten raw, boiled, toasted or grilled or placed in a soup. Along with sake, it is one of the most popular offerings to the Gods. It also a popular New Year food. Mochi has been around for at least 1000 years. In the old days, the rice for mochi was pounded by men using sledgehammer-size wooden mallets and the pounded rice was steamed for 40 minutes into a smooth paste and then shaped by women into mochi. See Snacks, Diet and Eating Habits

Curry rice is one of the most common dishes cooked at home. It and sushi traditionally top the list in surveys of favorite foods. Rice and rice-derived products are also used in skin care and hair care products.

Rising wheat prices has lead some people to substitute rice flour for wheat flour to make things like bread, dumplings pasts and pizza. Bread made of rice rather than wheat is being promoted in some places. It is especially popular in Tokamachi, Niigata Prefecture , a major rice-producing area.

Rice gruel is popular Kyoto summertime breakfast. The tradition began at Kyoto’s Buddhist temples, some of which off rice gruel to visitors in the summer.

Great Rice Panic of 1994 in Japan

During the Great Rice Panic of 1994, when a bad harvest gave Japan no choice but to import 70 percent of the nation's rice supplies, Japanese shoppers lined up outside department stores starting at 6:30am, three hours before stores opening time, to get their hands on 10-kilograms bags of Japanese rice, which were selling on the black market for up to $143. The panic was brought about by wet, cool weather that destroyed much of the 1993 rice crop.

The Japanese found the rice imported from California to be tolerable but they had a hard time with Thai rice, especially after a magazine ran a picture of a dead mouse found in a bag of Thai rice and reported that cigarette butts and other debris had also been found in Thai rice.

During the panic morning shows gave tips on preparing foreign rice; the Tokyo government ran a rice hot line for people who had difficulty coping with problem; and Japanese school children were forced to eat "blended rice" (a mix of Japanese, Chinese, American and Thai rice) even though the government originally said they wouldn't have to. To calm fears, the Emperor and Empress released a statement, saying that were eating "blended rice," and the Minister of Agriculture ate some foreign rice at a supermarket and said "this does not taste familiar, but I don't feel any resistance to it," [Source: New York Times]

Rice Farming in Japan

See Economics, Agriculture

Nearly 90 Percent of Japanese Prefer Domestic Rice

Nearly 90 percent of respondents to a nationwide Yomiuri Shimbun survey said they would primarily choose Japanese rice over foreign brands even if the latter cost less after rice imports were liberalized. The survey also showed 68 percent were in favor of increasing the number of large-scale farming operations to boost Japan's agricultural productivity, compared with 19 percent who were opposed.[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, November 21, 2011]

Asked if they would continue buying domestic rice even after low-priced rice from overseas became available under trade liberalization, 89 percent of the respondents said they would purchase primarily Japanese-made rice, while 7 percent said they would buy primarily rice from abroad.

Seiyu to Sell Chinese Rice at 149 Stores

In March 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: Seiyu GK will start selling Chinese-grown rice on Saturday at 149 stores in Tokyo, Shizuoka and five other prefectures in the Kanto region at 1,299 yen for five kilograms--more than 20 percent less than inexpensive domestic brands, the major supermarket chain has announced. It will be the first time since 1994 that a major distributor will sell foreign-produced rice. In 1993 and 1994, Japan imported rice as an emergency measure due to a lean harvest. Observers say the move is in anticipation of the trend toward trade liberalization, to see how consumers react to the imported rice. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 10, 2012]

The rice, which is the same type as the domestic-produced Japonica rice, is grown in Jilin Province, in northeastern China. "[We decided to sell the rice as] the price of domestic rice surged after the Great East Japan Earthquake, which led to a shortage of inexpensive rice," a Seiyu official said at a press conference. Seiyu plans to sell a certain number of Chinese rice brands by autumn, when domestic rice harvested in 2012 goes on sale. The company said it will see how the rice sells before deciding how to proceed.

Other major supermarket chain operators are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Seiyu's move. "We don't plan to sell foreign rice," supermarket chain operator Aeon Co. said. In the food service industry, Matsuya Foods Co., a major gyudon beef bowl chain operator, started using a mixture of Japanese and Australian rice at about 70 percent of its stores in late February.

Since 1995, Japan has accepted a certain amount of foreign-produced rice as tariff-free imports. The country currently imports 767,000 tons of such rice a year. Most of the imported rice is used for processed food products or livestock feed. However, 100,000 tons are sold as a staple food, which is how Seiyu plans to sell the Chinese rice.

Seiyu's move comes as the country moves toward liberalizing its trade--for example, through the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement negotiations. The government currently imposes a 778 percent tariff on imported rice. If the tariff is removed or sharply reduced following the TPP talks, a large amount of foreign rice is expected to be imported to Japan. Seiyu apparently decided to import the Chinese rice to gauge consumers' reactions in anticipation of such a scenario, according to observers.

Some Japanese Consumers Choosing Cheaper Chinese-Produced Rice

In April 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “As domestic rice prices increased following the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, an increasing number of consumers are opting for cheaper imported rice. Some restaurant operators started using imported rice on their menus in an apparent move to gauge customers' reactions...Seiyu GK, a major supermarket chain operator in Kita Ward, Tokyo, started selling rice from China's Jilin Province in March 2012 at its 149 stores in Tokyo and five other prefectures in the Kanto region, as well as Shizuoka Prefecture. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 6, 2012]

At Seiyu's Akabane store in the ward, a 45-year-old homemaker said she had tried the Chinese-grown rice once, which sells for 1,299 yen for five kilograms. "We have no complaints about the taste," she said. "We appreciate the affordability as we have a son in middle school who has a big appetite." The Jilin rice is increasingly popular as it is about 20 percent cheaper than the most affordable domestic product--a blended rice priced at 1,650 yen, according to a Seiyu public relations official. "It's been selling much better than we expected," he said.

The hospitality industry is also seeing an increasing number of restaurant operators using imported rice. Kappa Create Co., an operator of a sushi restaurant chain in Saitama, for example, has been using U.S. rice at a restaurant in the city since January. Matsuya Foods Co. in Musashino, Tokyo, which runs gyudon beef bowl restaurants, followed suit in February by mixing domestic and Australian rice at about 70 percent of its eateries.

The chain operator prefers harder rice because it soaks up less sauce than regular rice does. However, the company was unable to secure enough hard domestic rice this year. "We realized that [gyudon] tastes better with harder Australian rice than with soft domestic rice," a Matsuya official said.

Many restaurant operators are willing to use imported rice due to shortages of affordable domestic rice. The number of restaurant operators interested in using imported rice is believed to be rising dramatically, according to Toshikazu Nishira, 50, who runs a rice shop in Sanda, Hyogo Prefecture. "We receive online orders for cheap Chinese rice from those we presume are in the hospitality industry," he said.

Shio-Koji: Salty Malt Rice

Explaining what "shio-koji" is, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “"Shio" means salt, and "koji" is a preparation made by growing mold on some kind of grain, usually rice. Shio-koji can be made by salting rice with koji mold growing on it, adding water, and letting the mixture sit for a week or two. Shio-koji is not consumed directly, but marinating meat and vegetables in this salty mold improves the flavor considerably. You can make shio-koji at home or buy it bottled or packed in the supermarket. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 6, 2012]

Why does shio-koji make food taste better? The koji mold transforms starch, protein and other food components into substances that enhance sweetness and savoriness. Mixing food with shio-koji also makes it salty, but in a different way than regular salt. Food prepared using koji mold includes familiar products such as miso, soy sauce, sake and mirin, a sweet sake used for seasoning. All these products are used to make cooked food taste better.

The media started a shio-koji craze by promoting it as a seasoning on TV and in magazines last year. Since then, it has become increasingly popular. Even though most people see shio-koji as a new ingredient, some parts of the country have long used similar recipes to flavor traditional dishes, such as tsukemono pickles. It would be great if the growing popularity of shio-koji helped even more people appreciate the beauty of traditional Japanese food.

Giant Rice Balls from Ibaraki Prefecture

Reporting from Sakuragawa in Ibaraki Prefecture , Akira Anzai wrote: Early winter is the time when a small group of people eat colossal balls of steamed rice called "mosso" as part of a tradition to pray for health and an abundant harvest. Omeshi Matsuri (the plentiful rice festival) is held at Kashima Shrine in Sakuragawa's district of Shimo-Izumi and has been celebrated annually for 400 years. Each cone-shaped mosso is 30 centimeters tall and consists of seven go (about 1.3 liters) of rice harvested from the shrine's rice paddies. Participants say the mosso in the past was even larger, consisting of one sho (about 1.8 liters) of rice. [Source: Akira Anzai, Yomiuri Shimbun, December 2011]

Despite Sakuragawa's inland location, the saury is a customary accompaniment to the mosso. Other side dishes, including boiled vegetables and soup, are also usually served. This food is traditionally cooked by women, but they must adhere to a rare custom that prevents them from attending the event and preparing the mosso. Only men are allowed to prepare the festival grounds and eat the mosso.

On Sunday, 26 people participated in Omeshi Matsuri. They began eating the mosso after the shrine's priest read prayers and offered sacred sake to the deity, Kashima-sama. During this time, a man holding a giant rice paddle appeared, playing the role of Kashima-sama. He wore traditional sandals called waraji and had a headband made of rice straw. The man encouraged everyone to finish the mosso, "Eat more, eat more," he said. While all 26 men ate for more than an hour, only two devoured an entire mosso, including the youngest participant Norikazu Otsuka, 36. Consuming such a huge quantity of rice can be exhausting. Otsuka said, "My mouth got tired as I continued to cram rice with soup down my throat."

The unusual festival was held even during the food shortages of World War II. But its survival is being threatened by Japan's prolonged recession and aging population. These dual problems caused the cancellation in 2009 of another Omeshi Matsuri that had traditionally been held in the neighboring Hongo district.

Image Sources: 1) Ray Kinnane 2) JNTO 3) Japan Zone 4) exorsyst blog, 5) Japan Visitor, 6) Photomann vending machine website

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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