The Japanese Table Back Issues
Processing Rice's Treasuresby Ayao Okumura
In Japan, a bowl of white rice symbolizes a meal, and rightly so - by about 1,300 years ago it had developed into the country's staple food. Today this essential grain can also be found in a variety of processed foods, some with histories centuries old.
Rice's role in Japanese cuisine is not limited to its appearance on the table, a steaming bowlful around which the meal is planned. It is also the main ingredient in a number of well-known foods, beverages and seasonings. The final product depends on how the rice is processed and on what type of rice is used, whether uruchimai, the ordinary rice that is served with meals, or mochigome, a glutinous rice, most often prepared for special occasions and used to make snacks and sweets.
Sake, Mirin and Vinegar
The most popular processed rice product is sake, a brewed, highly alcoholic beverage with a mild aroma and delicate blend of flavors. Fourth-century records reveal its essential role as a sacred offering to soothe the gods.
Three ingredients go into sake brewing - rice, water and the fermenting agent koji (steamed rice inoculated with the yeast Aspergillus oryzae). The fermented liquor is put into cloth sacks and pressed to separate the sake from the lees (the remains of the rice and koji ), then heated to kill bacteria - a technique invented in Japan some 450 years ago, long before the discovery of pasteurization.
While wine fermented from grapes is regarded as an accompaniment to a meal - to accent or bring out the flavors of foods - in Japan, sake is accompanied by small portions of food, or sakana, to enhance the flavors of this celebrated beverage. In other words, it can be said that Japanese cuisine developed as an accompaniment to sake.
Mirin is a sweet, alcoholic flavoring, also made of rice; namely, distilled rice spirits mixed with steamed glutinous rice and koji, which is fermented. Originally drunk as a liqueur with a rather tart taste, mirin has been refined over the years, becoming one of the mainstays of Japanese cooking. Combined with soy sauce, for example, it forms the basis of teriyaki sauce, a popular basting sauce for grilled foods.
Before sake is heated to kill bacteria, it quickly sours, because bacteria converts the alcohol to acetic acid when it comes in contact with air. The result is vinegar, another essential in the Japanese larder, which can also be made from sake lees.
Miso, Pickles and Mochi
Another important flavor in Japanese cooking is provided by miso, a fermented paste of beans, rice or barley. Rice miso, made only of rice and koji, comes in two types, salty and sweet. The rather sweet, white miso is characteristically used in Kyoto cuisine.
Rice also plays a major role in pickling and sushi production, the origins of which can be found in the Nara period, when fish, wild boar or deer were salted and pressed, then placed between layers of cooked, salted rice and pressed under stones to ferment. The rice soured because of the bacteria that produces lactic acid during fermentation, increasing its capacity to preserve the layered foods. The type of sushi that developed from this process is called narezushi - the early incarnation of the more familiar nigirizushi, a strip of seafood atop a small fistful of vinegared rice.
Pickles, or tsukemono, a traditional sidedish to a Japanese meal, are said to stimulate the appetite and enhance the flavor of cooked rice. One method of pickling utilizes sake lees, while yet another uses rice bran (nuka), a by-product of the rice-polishing process. Nukazuke, or pickling in bran, has been around for about 800 years.
One of the most versatile rice products, mochi, is made with glutinous rice, which is steamed rather than boiled, and placed in a large wooden mortar while still hot, then beaten with a large pestle. Flipped and sprinkled with water between plunges until it becomes a coherent mass with a smooth, elastic texture, the ball of rice is then flattened and cut into pieces or shaped into rounds. Kagamimochi, for example, is a traditional New Year's decoration that serves both as the dwelling place of the god of the harvest and the offering to that god. Small mochi balls, endowed with similar significance, go into zoni, a soup made from the symbolic offerings of seafood, fowl and vegetables that decorate the kagamimochi.
In the past, most families pounded mochi whenever there was a special event, but today it is available in supermarkets, prepackaged. Households who prefer to make their own often use automatic mochi-pounding machines instead of the traditional wooden mortar and pestle.
Sweets, Snacks and Instant Foods
Glutinous rice flour is used to make another kind of rice-ball confection with a mochi-like consistency: the sweets served in the tea ceremony, or wagashi. Stuffed with sweet bean paste, or anko, and shaped and colored to suggest seasonal flowers or fruits, these delicacies have become a minor art form. The felicitous combination of anko (made from red beans boiled with sugar) wrapped in mochi was discovered about 500 years ago.
Mochi may be cut into small pieces of varying shapes and designs and dried, then grilled or deep-fried as snack foods, often with soy sauce as the basic flavoring. Today, the crispness of these mochi snacks make them increasingly more popular among young people than grilled senbei, or rice crackers.
For travelers in the Nara and Heian periods (710-1185), another glutinous rice product, hoshii, was a lifesaver. The rice was steamed and dried, rather than pounded into mochi. The resulting product kept well and served as trail food in an era without inns, much less drive-in restaurants. The traveler would simply add an equal amount of boiling water to the hoshii, wait ten minutes, and the rice was ready to eat - instant food from a millennium ago.
From the classic bowl of gleaming white rice to ancient emergency rations, the Japanese have centuries of experience in making full use of their rice crop. Even the bran left when rice is polished is used down to the last husk - in pickling beds, for bleaching root vegetables and as a source of oil. In the wide range of foods based on rice, and in the sacred character of rice itself, this fundamental grain has become the cornerstone of the culinary culture of Japan.
Ayao Okumura, owner of Okumura Ayao Cooking Studio, is a professor at Kobe Yamate College and specializes in traditional Japanese cuisine.
This text was excerpted from Kikkoman News Letter "Food Forum" Vol. 12, No. 2 (June 1998) The text has been copyrighted by the author and may not be cited or quoted without written permission.
Requests to reprint articles or excerpts should be sent to "Contact Us".