Zakkoku: Cereal Grains Return to Japan
Cereal grains were once a staple food alongside white rice in the Japanese diet. As rice came to predominate this diet after the Meiji Restoration (1868), however, the cultivation of cereal crops declined. But in light of today’s health-conscious lifestyles and emphasis on nutrition, those same cereal grains are beginning to reclaim consumer notice.
Cereal grains are termed zakkoku in Japanese, which refers to cereal crops with nuts and seeds, such as pulses or buckwheat; it does not include rice or wheat. There are over 15 types of cereal grains and most of these are nutritiously rich, containing significant amounts of vitamins, fiber and minerals.
Cereal grains have been around for centuries, but only now is their nutritional value awakening newfound attention in Japan. Today’s consumers have a choice of cereals, from single-grain types to multi-grain mixes—and these products are usually found on shelves alongside the country’s favored grain, rice. Many consumers prefer cereals that have been processed to minimize their distinctive flavor. Today’s cereals are also being mixed with rice. The taste of Japanese millet alone is not very pleasant to those unaccustomed to it, but it does become more palatable if mixed together with other kinds of cereals. When mixed and cooked with rice, for example, the texture of the millet is like tiny bubbles bursting in the mouth.
Cereal grains require a bit of preparation before cooking, and until recently they were difficult to find, sold only in stores specializing in organic or health foods. All this has changed following the recent introduction of cereal grains that can be mixed with rice and cooked in a rice-cooker. Preparation has become much easier, and together with the broader availability of pre-mixed cereals at many supermarkets, more consumers now enjoy cereal grains at home on a daily basis.
Japanese convenience stores have begun to sell onigiri (rice balls) and obento (lunch boxes) using cereals, and they have become popular among the health-conscious. Producers create unique blends of cereals with specific nutritional value, texture and flavor to attract individual consumers.
As cereal grains have become more broadly accepted in Japan, foods and eating habits are beginning to reflect these dietary changes. One family restaurant chain now serves rice mixed with ten types of cereal grains, such as black rice, pressed barley and amaranth; health-food restaurants serve cereals mixed with rice, as well as in dishes like croquettes and hamburgers; some restaurants even serve entire course meals with a focus on cereals. In addition, there are cooking and pastry schools that focus on cereal-based recipes.
In 2004, the Japan Millet Association was established. Its members are associated with the production, processing and distribution of cereals and are active in promoting the benefits of cereal grains. The Millet Association has also established a scheme to certify those well-informed about grains and their cooking methods as “cereal sommeliers.” Thus the Japanese palate is evolving from mere appreciation of the nutritional value of cereal grains, to their greater—and more delicious—potential.