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January 26, 2008

Is rice still the "Soul of Japan?"

Is rice still the soul of Japan? Perhaps not so strongly anymore when you see the advance of hamburgers, pasta en steaks.

But various things still remind me of the fact that this tropical marshland plant has shaped Japanese civilization as we know it. Rice and the Japanese share a long and deep relationship. Rice cultivation caused the rise of extended families, of sophisticated water control and of communal cooperation. It made Japan into the "interdependent" society it still is today.

It also shaped religion as rice cultivation itself was seen as a religious act - the God of the Paddies (or the Mountain God) would be welcomed to the fields in spring and be sent off again in autumn. This in turn gave rise to annual observances, festivals (matsuri) and folk performing arts. These rituals were also connected with ceremonies in the Imperial House.

But that is not all. I find it interesting that rice was also money. Besides being the staple food, rice functioned as salary - samurai's stipends were measured and paid in rice - and as tax money. Both were measured in koku, usually translated as bushels, although the Japanese bushel at 180 liters was more than 5 times the U.S. bushel. One koku was the total amount of rice eaten in a year by one person.

Traditional Japan truly was a rice economy. Was there ever a bread or potato economy in Europe? I have not heard of it!

The type of rice eaten in Japan is called Japonica and characterized by greater stickiness than Chinese or Indian rice. Besides normal glutinous rice, there is even a more stickier type that is used for making the dreaded mochi rice cakes and the okowa (sticky, steamed rice) you can buy on the food floors of department stores. A third variety with long, starchy kernels is used exclusively as rice for brewing sake.

There are thousands of varieties of rice in Japan, many of them bred in the 20th century for improved productivity and resistance to disease and cold weather. The most famous types such as Koshihikari and Sasanishiki are brand names in their own right and demand higher prices than ordinary rice where different types have been mixed.

That rice is the basis of the Japanese menu, is demonstrated by an expression as ichiju ichisai : "one soup" (miso) and "one vegetable dish" (pickles) - a bowl of rice is also included, but so obvious that it is not even mentioned!

Besides being eaten as white rice (after polishing the brown hull away), rice is used for rice cakes, Japanese sweets, rice crackers, and to make sake, vinegar, miso, mirin (sweet cooking sake) and koji (malt). There are various rice dishes, such as onigiri, takikomi gohan (rice cooked together with various ingredients), donburi (white rice with a topping as eel, fried pork etc), Chinese-style fried rice (chahan) - and of course pilaff.

In a traditional society, nothing is thrown away, so rice straw was used for making rope, straw sandals, straw mats (goza), tatami padding, straw rice bags and straw rain coats (mino).

By the number of expressions and nuances for it in a given language, you can see whether something is important in that culture. Not surprisingly, there are many words for rice in Japanese. The Japanese make a difference between rice in the fields (ine), harvested rice (kome) and cooked rice (gohan). Gohan is also the general term for "food." When rice is eaten from a plate instead of from a bowl, it is not Japanese anymore and is therefore called by the English term "raisu."

Finally, some "rice etiquette":
- when serving rice, do not fill the rice bowl to the brim but only lightly put two or three scoops of rice in the bowl with the rice paddle;
- never put other food on top of the rice or mix it with other food in the ricebowl (of course, except when some pickles as a dried plum are already on top);
- do not add flavorings such as soy sauce or red pepper to the white rice, this looks very barbarian!
- when eating the rice, pick up the bowl in one hand and bring it close to your mouth (do the same with the miso soup); however, never pick up the plate when rice is served on a plate.
- when starting the meal say "itadakimasu!" ("I receive") and when finished "gochisosama!" ("Thank you for the feast").

If you don't like rice, be assured that it will grow on you the longer you stay in Japan. At least, that is my experience. When I was just in Japan, I could at most eat half a bowl, but after a couple of years I found myself increasingly asking for "okawari" (a second helping)!