Japanese cuisine is centered on freshly-cooked
white rice served with a variety of side dishes.
We Japanese have been eating rice since ancient times,
but we are not alone in this regard
– an outward look will show that rice is eaten in
many countries of the world.
The types of rice, cultivation methods, and cooking
methods may differ, but countless people around the
world grow rice and enjoy it in a variety of styles of cooking.
Let’s look together at the kinds of rice that have
spread around the world.
All kinds of grains exist in the world, but the three most
frequently eaten major grains are corn, rice, and wheat.
According to 2014 statistics from the UN Food and Agriculture
Organization, the total production of these grains was
approximately 1,037,000,000 tons, 741,000,000 tons, and
729,000,000 tons respectively.
Though corn had the highest quantity, approximately
60% of this amount is in fact used for livestock feed.
In terms of the amounts consumed by people, rice is
likely to be the world’s number one grain.
Three important nutrients are essential for
human life: carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
Of these, carbohydrates are an important source of
energy we need to live.
During our time before farming, as hunter-gatherers, we took carbohydrates
from fruits, honey, nuts and berries, and tuber vegetables. Starch, which is
a component of grains such as rice, is a combined form of such carbohydrates.
The rice that we enjoy in Japan is the result of rice plants that have been selectively
cultivated on over a long period of time. The ancestor of the different types of rice now
cultivated around the world is termed “wild rice.” This was first cultivated approximately
10,000 years ago in the Yangtze River region of China.
Dense growth of natural wild rice in Cambodia
Notice how the grains of selectively cultivated rice are
larger and whiter than those of wild rice.
Wild rice can still be seen today, though
the ears of the plants are small and do not
provide many grains (i.e. rice). Furthermore,
a light touch will send the grains falling
to the ground.
Mankind’s ancestors selectively cultivated this wild rice to produce strains
which offered more plentiful harvests, resistance to cold and disease, and
better flavors. Every kind of rice now enjoyed around the world was derived
from this wild rice.
Outside of Japan and Asia, rice is cultivated and eaten in a great number of places in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, North and South America, and Australia.
Upland rice cultivation consists of sowing rice seeds in fields without keeping them submerged in water. In Laos, a slash-and-burn farming technique is used, in which the slopes of hills and mountains are burned to create arable fields, where the rice seeds are planted by making holes in the soil using rods. The rice is harvested once a year, with glutinous rice being the primary variety. Farmers cut down the plants at the ear or clean the ears by hand to harvest the rice in the husk.
Rice has seeds as well as grains, which come in different colors and shapes depending on the type of rice. Naturally, different seeds result in different flavors, too. People have developed types of rice that suit the natural features of where they live through long processes of trial and error.
There are two major species of rice: indica and japonica. Japonica is cultivated in temperate zones such as Japan, as well as mountainous areas of tropical zones. Indica, on the other hand, can be grown in the flatlands of temperate zones. The grains can be short and stout, long and thin, or any shape in between. The rice also ranges in texture from dry and crumbly to sticky and gooey like mochi.
It’s said that japonica has round grains and a sticky texture, while indica is long, thin, and dry, but this doesn’t always hold true. Thanks to human cultivation, both species have been refined to include a rich diversity of varieties.
This type of cultivation involves growing rice in flooded fields called paddies. Large-scale paddy cultivation takes place in the West using expansive rice paddies larger than those found in Japan. Unlike in Japan, where we plant seedlings in the paddies, in the West, the seeds are sown in the paddies directly.
Rice seeds grow into rice plants, and then develop ears of rice. We harvest the rice we grow, and then we eat it. There are a number of processes involved in the journey from planting seeds of rice to serving cooked rice, and the Japanese language has many words for the different states of rice and the methods of processing them. Here are some of these words, starting from seeds and planting.
Floating rice cultivation is a method of cultivating rice in wetland regions where the water volume increases as a result of seasonal flooding. In response to the gradual increase of the water level, the stalks of the rice plants can grow up to five meters in length to reach above the water’s surface. When the water drains and the plants are harvested, they appear as if they are bowing.
Different kinds of rice are cultivated in countries around the
world. Much like how rice comes in different varieties
depending on the natural environment, so do the people who live
there have different preferences.
Fragrant rice is well-loved in Asia. The distinguishing feature
of this type of rice is in its distinctive flavors and aromas.
There are many kinds of fragrant rice – in Thailand,
the premier variety is held to be jasmine rice
(hom mali), and in India and Pakistan,
it is basmati rice.
Koshihikari rice is a byword for delicious rice in Japan, but recently new varieties have begun to emerge across the country.
These include new varieties that are good for not only cooking by boiling, but for other purposes as well, such as sushi rice, curry, tamago kake-gohan (egg on rice), and omusubi (rice balls). Selective cultivation has recently even made it possible to grow good rice in cold locations like Hokkaido.