Imagine a steaming bowl of soft, fluffy rice with pickled vegetables on the side, and a hot cup of tea. Crack an egg over it and add a bit of soy sauce to prepare an ultimate Japanese comfort food, tamago-kake-gohan (卵かけごはん). In Japan, rice has a history of over 2000 years. It is the staple of the Japanese diet, and with its long history comes an irreplaceable importance to the culture and daily lives of the people. One name for rice, “gohan” ごはん, is also the word used to refer to a “meal.” In fact, “breakfast” (asagohan 朝ごはん), “lunch”(hirugohan昼ごはん) and “dinner” (yorugohan/bangohan 夜ごはん•晩ごはん) all contain the term “gohan.” Yes, rice, rice, and more rice, usually three times a day! To many, rice and Japan seem an inseparable existence. However, rice was not always this widespread and readily available in Japan as it is today.
Rice was first brought to Japan from Southeast Asia, either during the Yayoi period (300 BCE—300 CE) or Jōmon period (13,000—400 BCE). Before that, Japanese people were nomadic, relying on hunting and gathering for food. It was around the time rice was introduced to Japan that the nomadic people switched to an agricultural lifestyle, enabling them to settle in villages. Some say it was rice that changed the way Japanese people lived. People even started raising koi (carp) in the water of the rice paddies, which provided extra nutrients for the rice plants, as well as protein for the family in the winter.
Rice was difficult to grow, as the process was tedious and involved a great deal of time, water, and manual labor. Farmers generally planted rice in the spring (April) and harvested it in the fall (September). The workforce of a single family was often not enough, so families that had good relationships with each other worked together in the same rice field. Working well together was key to having a productive farm, and some believe that this is the origin of the strong Japanese group mentality. With each grain of stickiness, rice brought people together. Not only was rice the core of Japanese food, but valued as a currency.
Rice paddies in June. ©福島の自然写真館
How rice is enjoyed today
There are many ways to enjoy rice. Sometimes, rice is eaten plain as an accompaniment to a meat or vegetable dish, while other times it is seasoned and made into its own dish, as in kamameshi (rice steamed with other ingredients such as vegetables and meat). The diverse ways in which rice is prepared are vast;
Sushi (寿司): One of the most popular Japanese delicacies, sushi refers to rice that is mixed with vinegar and combined with raw fish, vegetables or a sweetened egg, and is sometimes wrapped in nori, or seaweed.
Sake (酒, Japanese rice wine): One of Japan’s most famous varieties of alcohol, sake is made by fermenting polished rice in a process similar to that of brewing beer.
Onigiri/omusubi (おにぎり・おむすび): Lightly salted rice balls formed into a triangular or cylindrical shape with various fillings, often wrapped in nori (のり, seaweed). Some common fillings include cooked salmon, katsuo-bushi (かつお節, dried bonito flakes), ume (梅, pickled plum), and konbu (昆布, seasoned seaweed). Onigiri is simple to make and easy to carry around, so it is commonly taken for lunch or breakfast on the go.
Mochi (餅): These chewy and sticky rice cakes are a favorite among the Japanese, and are made from pounding “mochi gome” (もち米, mochi rice) into a paste. Mochi is commonly eaten with red bean paste and kinako (きな粉, roasted soybean flour). It can be found in many desserts, drinks, and even savory soups.
Tsukemono (漬物): There are many ways to prepare tsukemono (pickled ‘things’), but one common method is to pickle vegetables in roasted rice bran or sake lees. Tsukemono are served as appetizers with almost every washoku (和食, traditional Japanese dish) meal. Common tsukemono include radish, cucumber, Japanese plum, eggplant, cabbage, and ginger.
Senbei (せんべい): A common rice cracker snack made from pressed rice that is baked or fried to perfection. Japanese rice crackers can be found in various shapes and sizes, and though usually savory, can also be sweet.
Rice is best eaten fresh, right after the harvest season in the fall. Why not visit Japan to enjoy shinmai, the freshly harvested rice of the year?