Japanese Rice Grains

Japanese Rice

In the Tokugawa era (1600-1868), rice was not just an edible foodstuff. It was also the tax base of the ruling military government. People paid taxes in rice (and sometimes cash and soy), and used rice as an immensely marketable “currency” they could parlay into other goods.


Koshihikari is the crown jewel of Japanese short-grain rice, noted for its sweet, nutty taste and slight stickiness; it is especially suited to sushi. Its name means “light of Koshi.” Koshi is an old province of Japan, a stretch of land that lines the coast of the Sea of Japan and covers the birthplace of koshihikari, Niigata prefecture, as well as the place it took root, Fukui prefecture. Hikari, “light,” refers to the grain’s polish and its translucent quality. Koshihikari came from initiatives to increase rice-production in the immediate postwar era when people struggled to fill their stomachs. It was initially overshadowed by sturdier, more high-yield varieties when it debuted in 1944, but after a 1948 earthquake decimated production in Fukui prefecture, koshihikari got a second chance in new growing conditions. Koshihikari now accounts for almost 40% of rice production. It is cultivated as a highly valued “boutique” rice in specialized areas, such as Uonuma in Niigata prefecture.



Like most modern Japanese rice varieties, hitomebore was born in a local agricultural station. This short-grain variety was bred in Miyagi prefecture from koshihikari, and can be grown in far north regions without sacrificing flavor. Its name means “love at first sight,” and it is currently the second most popular rice in Japan. It is eaten plain or in sushi or onigiri.


Akitakomachi is a high-end, short-grain rice from Akita prefecture, similar to koshihikari but slightly less sticky. It was cross-bred in Akita prefecture in 1975 from strains from Fukui prefecture. Because its water content is high, its grain stays plump; Akitakomachi is especially favored for sushi, for mochi (where a bit of chewiness is required), and portable foods like onigiri (where the grains cling together even when cold).


In the last few years, no-wash rice (musenmai) has become popular. Most home cooks rinse the nal layer of bran–the hada nuka, or skin bran–o their rice before cooking it by swishing the rice around in water until it is no longer cloudy. While people occasionally use this “greywater” to blanch vegetables or water their plants and gardens, usually it goes down the drain. Musenmai allows the husk and bran to be reserved for fertilizer, and now makes up 10-20% of all rice consumption.


The Japanese word “kome” refers to the grains of rice that make their way into our bowls and plates. There is an entirely different word for the plant itself–iné, the grassy stalk on which the grains ripen. Brown rice is known as genmai, written with the character for “opaque” attached to the character for “rice.” Its husk is removed, leaving the germ and the bran on top of the starchy endosperm, which is the grain we see as refined white rice.

It was only in the Meiji period that commoners had wide access to polished rice. And well into the twentieth century, people mixed rice with grains such as barley (mugi), rye, different kinds of millet (like awa or kibi) and even sweet potatoes. In the 1920s, a kind of rice called haigamai (germ rice) was popularized by the famed doctor, fiction-writer and Freudian translator Mori Ogai as a remedy against beriberi, a public health scare caused by vitamin B deficiency.  The outside bran is removed from the grain, leaving the germ, with the fiber and vitamins B and E that reside in that layer. In the last five years, the taste for haigamai has revived with the overall interest in healthy eating and the “slow life” movement.


A standard inari sushi is a little handful of fried tofu, made of a thin tofu layer called abura-age, daubed with oil and filled with seasoned rice, flecked sometimes with gobo (burdock root) or carrots. These snacks are named “inari”–most likely coming from the phrase for “carrying rice”–in recognition of the inari deity seen in highly localized versions of Shinto, Buddhist and folk practices. Inari are famed for protecting rice, agriculture, and fertility. Inari became the patron saint of warriors in the 16th century, were esteemed for preventing res in 18th c. Edo (Tokyo), and are intimately related to folk beliefs about spirit possession. Inari is the patron of about a third of all Shinto shrines and also the mountain in Kyoto where this deity was first worshiped. In popular lore, inari are often accompanied by messengers, foxlike creatures called “kitsune” who are known as shape-shifters who play tricks on humans when not protecting them. Inari and their attendant foxes are rumored to have a soft spot for fried tofu. The plump brown oval shape of inari sushi also recalls the silhouette of a football–thus this updated version of the recipe, designed to be passed back and forth in celebration of the spirits and tricksters of sport.

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