The Japanese Table Back Issues
The Fundamentals of Riceby Shinpachiro Tamura
Rice's predominant role as a staple food in the Japanese diet is changing in the face of a more diverse food culture. Our continuing series on this essential grain reveals the fundamentals of rice - past and present.
Over 2,000 years ago, rice cultivation was introduced to Japan from China. This is considered to have been the turning point when ancient Japan shifted from the Jomon period (ca 10,000 B.C.-ca 300 B.C.), an age of hunter-gatherers, to the Yayoi period (ca 300 B.C.-ca A.D. 300). During the Jomon era, in some areas of Japan people were already beginning to cultivate plants such as chestnut trees; it was the introduction of rice farming, however, that set Japan on its course as an agricultural society.
Rice seedlings are planted and cultivated in paddies, watery fields whose imagery and language are reflected today in countless aspects of Japanese society - including the many Japanese family names which contain the ideograph for rice paddy (ta): for example, Tamura (the author's family name), Tanaka and Akita.
Rice cultivation was enthusiastically developed, and as harvests increased the bulk of the diet began to revolve around cooked rice - thus rice gradually became one of the country's fundamental staple foods. In time, a "typical" Japanese meal came to consist of a bowl of plain, cooked rice accompanied by various side dishes.
A Healthy Diet
Among the various grains, rice contains a superior quality of protein, making it a healthy choice as the focus of any meal: while most other grain proteins contain only small quantities of lysine, one of the essential amino acids, rice contains this highly nutritious element in abundance. The amount of the protein lysine in rice is one and a half times that of wheat, and twice that of corn. As a principal part of the Japanese diet, rice supplements the intake of starch while providing the basis for balanced nutrition. When eaten in combination with soy-based foods - various types of tofu and fermented soybeans, for example - the highly nutritious benefits of rice are enhanced.
For centuries, food in Japan was generally cooked using various stocks made of fish, seaweed and shiitake mushrooms, as well as salt, which was once produced by pouring sea water onto seaweed and then burning it. Other important flavorings trace their roots to China; for example, Japan's miso, or soy paste, was derived from a fermented food consisting of soybeans, grains, and cooking salt known as hishio, which came from that country. Some 600 years ago in Japan, ground soy paste became the basis for various dishes, including miso soup. Soy paste also gave rise to a thin liquid that began to be used in more complex cooking. Today we call this liquid soy sauce, sometimes referred to as murasaki, literally "purple," in praise of its rich, dark color.
Thus the quintessential Japanese-style meal eventually evolved: plain rice cooked in water, served with various side dishes seasoned with salt, soy paste and soy sauce, while seasonal vegetables, seafood and processed soybean foods were enjoyed as supplementary dishes. It was not until the mid-19th century that beef, pork and dairy products were introduced and integrated into this essential diet.
Today, Japan boasts a rich and diverse food culture, augmented by foods from around the world. And in the face of so many delicious options, perhaps it is natural that these days consumption of rice is declining.
In a traditional Japanese-style meal, cooked rice is served in a bowl used exclusively for rice, while various side dishes are served separately on several plates placed on the table. In general, most people eat their rice and side dishes alternately - a mouthful of rice, then a bite of a side dish.
Only some 50 years ago, it was believed best to eat more than one bowl of rice, and second and third helpings were recommended. After the meal, hot green tea was poured into the bowl to drink down the remaining grains. This was regarded as good manners at the time, as it was considered offensive to waste even a single grain of the precious rice so laboriously planted and harvested by farmers.
A famous poem from that era, honoring the simple life and exhorting an appreciation of nature, includes the following line: ". . . have four go of brown rice, a little miso and some vegetables daily . . ." A go is a unit of measurement, and four go are equal to approximately 600 grams. Not surprisingly, the per capita consumption of rice as principal fare was much higher in those days. Since then, however, rice consumption has dropped drastically, and today's average daily consumption is only about 200 grams.
For a simple and easy meal, rice and side dishes are often combined. A perfect example of this is sushi, with its skillfully sliced fresh fish placed atop a bite-sized pinch of rice. Tekkamaki is a variation of sushi that consists of a rice roll wrapped in dried seaweed, with tuna at the center. (This nutritious finger-food was originally invented so that people could eat while gambling - a concept that recalls the Western creation of the sandwich.)
Japan is home to an entire genre of foods that comprises bowls of rice with various toppings, most of which evolved during the mid-19th century. Curry, although originally from India, has become so popular here in the form of "curry rice" that it has nearly reached the status of a national food. Other rice-with-topping meals include katsudon, fried pork on rice, and gyudon, stewed beef on rice.
Although it may no longer be central to the Japanese diet, the significance of rice continues to survive - its influences can be traced throughout Japanese culture. Modern Japanese still call their meals gohan, a word which also means cooked rice: one may say that they've enjoyed bread for asa-gohan, (meaning "breakfast," or literally "morning rice"). Yet even while today's remarkably diverse daily diet may include other staples of bread and noodles, the concept of rice endures as the fundamental element in the Japanese diet.
Shinpachiro Tamura is former President of the National Food Research Institute, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
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.
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