The Japanese Table Back Issues
Rice - The Essential Foodby Noritake Kanzaki
Our new series on the fundamentals of Japanese food culture takes a look at the elements that have formed Japan's unique cuisine - starting with rice. Japan's rice not only defines its cuisine, but reflects a fascinating history and tradition.
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Rice is indispensable in the Japanese diet, but its history as a daily food is not so very long - just half a century ago, white rice was enjoyed only on special occasions, such as during shrine festivals and Buddhist ceremonies, or at weddings and funerals. Japan's rice cultivation has flourished since the 2nd or 3rd century B.C., and in subsequent eras, preparing new paddies and encouraging cultivation was a central concern in the policies of Japan's rulers. Until recently, however, the country's soil and climate limited the rice yields, making it impossible to produce enough rice to serve as the staple food for the entire population. Yet, since rice is native to the tropics, it is hardly surprising that rice harvests have never been as abundant in Japan as they are in tropical or subtropical climes, despite over 2,000 years of cultivation.
In the Japanese archipelago, which lies at the northern limit of the zone in which rice can be cultivated, those least likely to eat rice were the farmers who raised it. There's an old Japanese saying that goes, "Six parts for the state, four parts for the people," which reflects the duty of the 70% to 80% of those who were farmers to hand over more than half the rice they produced to non-food producers, mostly city-dwellers.
While rice was raised in the country, it was collected, stored and consumed in the cities where power was concentrated. As a result, the majority of the rural population were forced to subsist on other grains and root vegetables grown in dry fields. Their daily diet was based on rice mixed with whatever was available.
In a sense, Japan's extensive dry fields were a blessing compared to other rice-growing regions in Southeast Asia. In today's Japan, rice is augmented by bread and noodles, both of which have long traditions in Japanese dietary customs.
The Mystical Power of Rice
Rice has always been valued highly in Japan. During the Edo period (1603-1868), salaries and daily wages were calculated in rice. It has also long been customary for rice to be connected to gifts to temples and shrines. Beyond its earthly value, however, Japanese have a strong religious belief in rice and its mystical power. This is why rice is sometimes called chikara (a homonym for "strength"), written using Chinese characters that literally mean "divine grain."
Offerings presented to the gods may include glutinous rice cooked with red beans, rice wine and glutinous rice cakes (mochi). These three highly ranked offerings are all of rice, and take great effort to make. They are offered to the gods as Japan's finest foods - and when Japanese speak of gods, they also include their ancestors.
Belief in gods, Buddhas and ancestors are all deeply rooted in the Japanese concept of ancestral spirits, which live together with gods and Buddhas in Heaven where they watch over the lives of their descendants. At festivals and Buddhist ceremonies, of which Obon and the New Year are the most important, ancestral spirits descend along with the gods and Buddhas to visit the households to which they belong. On these occasions, the spirits and their descendants socialize with one another, and the spirits serve as intermediaries between humanity and the gods or Buddhas.
An extension of these practices is the naorai, or meal of communion between gods, Buddhas and humans, where food that has been offered is shared after a festival. Similarly, in ceremonies at home, offerings first presented at the home Shinto and Buddhist altars are then eaten by the family - another form of communion. The offerings should naturally be what the ancestors most enjoyed eating.
Glistening white rice, rice wine and rice cakes, which are also made from white rice, are the traditional offerings. Of these, rice wine is particularly revered, but rice cakes tend to dominate in the offerings taken home in thanksgiving for family members and fellow members of a religious association.
Because glutinous rice cakes are considered the concentration of the spirit believed to reside in each grain of rice, they are regarded as being especially rich in the divine power of rice.
A symbol of this belief is kagamimochi, round glutinous rice cakes prepared as New Year offerings. The gods are believed to descend into the kagamimochi, which then come to embody the gods themselves. The swollen, rounded form of kagamimochi has a special meaning: one account says that this shape is modeled on the heart, a way of expressing the renewal of the life force. Thus, kagamimochi are also known as chikara ("strength") mochi or hagatame ("tooth-hardening") mochi. In cities, tooth-hardening meals are eaten during New Year or the last day of the year, while the custom of eating dried kagamimochi on the first day of the sixth month is found throughout Japan - a way to renew the life force as summer approaches.
These customs reflect the importance of glutinous rice in Japan. It seems probable that the first rice brought to Japan in ancient times was akagome, a red glutinous variety. Because this variety produces extremely small yields, it was replaced later by improved varieties. But while glutinousrice yields remain smaller than those of conventional types, the Japanese continue to grow it - an ongoing use of glutinous rice which distinguishes Japan from other parts of Asia.
Steaming is the basic cooking method for glutinous rice, as it ensures that ample water penetrates the grain, an important factor since the rice grain is round and its core is hard. Also, the fibrous outer cover of the glutinous rice grain is weak. Thus, if it were boiled long enough for heat to penetrate and cook the core, the outer part of the grain would dissolve and turn to mush.
Nowadays, steaming plays an important part in preparing ordinary rice eaten every day. The basic method is to boil rice with a minimum amount of water, then let it stand and settle. Before electric
rice cookers, rice was cooked in large pots on wood-fired stoves. Traditional instructions were to first heat gently, then rapidly; then when all the liquid was absorbed, to extinguish the fire and never take the cover off - even if the children are crying! Because the last step was especially important, there was extra emphasis on not removing the cover - no matter what. Once the rice was boiled and the fire extinguished, the residual heat steamed the rice thoroughly, resulting in the sticky consistency loved by Japanese.
An alternative method of preparing rice involves using a smaller pot with more water. After coming to a boil, the extra water is thrown out before the rice is done cooking. As a result, the stickiness is lost and the rice is drier. A similar method of boiling and draining rice is still used in India and Southeast Asia, and was formerly found in northeast Japan.
Today, the preferred method in Japan is steaming, directly related to the type of rice grown here: short-grained japonica varieties rather than long-grained indica strains. In their attachment to a cooking method based on glutinous rice, and in many other ways, Japanese reveal their ongoing, close connection with rice; their reverence of rice as sacred is an ancient tradition in Japan, one that remains fundamental in their lives.
Noritake Kanzaki, born in 1944, is a specialist in Japanese folklore. Currently he is a member of the Japanese Folklore Academy, as well as a Councilor of the Institute for the Culture of Travel, co-researcher of the National Museum of Ethnology and a Shinto priest.
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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