West Meets East: An American in Japan | All Blogs


By Josiah Lebowitz

First off, if you heard about the big earthquake that hit Japan today, you don’t need to worry about me. The Tokyo area (where I am) was pretty far from the epicenter. We felt it and it shock things up and shut down the trains but didn’t do any serious damage. If you’d like to know more, I wrote all about it in my travelogue at www.pebbleversion.com Now on with today’s originally planned post.

Rice paddies

If you need to choose one food to describe Japanese cooking, it would have to be rice. Like China, Korea, and a few other Asian countries, rice is the staple of the Japanese diet. Rice is eaten plain and used in a variety of different dishes. In fact, it’s very common for Japanese people to eat rice with nearly every meal. But it goes deeper than that…

Rice as a Defining Cultural Element

The world's largest rice scoop on the Japanese island of Miyajima.

Many Japanese people like to refer to themselves as a country of “rice eaters”. As opposed to the US, Canada, and other Western countries which are countries of “bread eaters”. The basic concept there is true, though perhaps not to the degree many Japanese people think it is. In Japan, bread is extremely common these days and Japanese bakeries have created some very interesting and excellent types of bread that you can’t find anywhere else in the world (which I’ll talk about in a future post). Though rice is certainly in no danger of being replaced. And while bread is a staple in many Western countries, it isn’t quite on the same level as rice is in Japan. I know Japanese people who were shocked to discover that many Americans don’t eat bread at every meal and that rice is actually quite popular in US.

Rice as Wealth

An old government rice storehouse.

In the old days, wealth in Japan was often measured primarily in rice, not gold. If the Emperor or Shogun wanted to reward a noble or retainer he would raise him to a rank of x units of rice (each unit being roughly the amount necessary to feed one person for a year). Such a rank meant that the person was entitled to a domain which had the land and subjects necessary to produce that amount of rice every year.

Many taxes were also paid primarily in rice, rather than money or jewels. As an interesting note, because of this it was often only the well-to-do who actually ate rice. For peasants (including the farmers who grew rice), rice was too precious to eat. Instead, they would sell whatever they had left after taxes and live on cheaper grains such as millet, buckwheat, and barley.

Rice as Food

Rice plants up close.

In modern Japan, everyone eats rice and the cheaper grains are only used in a handful of ways (buckwheat for making soba noodles, barley for barley tea, etc). Rice is most often eaten plain and, as I previously mentioned, it’s quite common for Japanese people to have a bowl or two of rice with nearly every meal. You’ll be hard pressed to find a Japanese family without a rice cooker that sees almost constant use. There are many types of rice in Japan but normal Japanese rice (which is the kind most often eaten plain and used in cooking) is a medium length, moderately sticky, white rice. Sushi rice (probably the second most common type) is a shorter and stickier variety. And, while you can usually find a bag or two of brown rice in stores, it’s not very widely used.

Rice is used in a variety of different Japanese dishes including some you’re likely familiar with like rice bowls (such as gyuudon, which I talked about in a previous post), sushi, and curry (though Japanese curry is rather unique compared to other types). Of course there are many rice based foods you likely haven’t heard of as well, such as mochi (a glutinous paste made of smashed rice), which is eaten plain and used in many Japanese soups, sweets, and snacks such as dango (I’ll explain what dango, and many other popular Japanese snacks, are in future posts). And, just in case rice isn’t one of the main ingredients in a Japanese meal, you can be almost certain that it’s included (or at least available) as a side dish.

Rice as Drinks

A giant sake bottle at a sake museum.

Chances are, most of you know about sake (Japanese rice wine). Though you probably didn’t know that it’s supposed to be pronounced “sah-keh”, not “sock-key”. I don’t particularly like sake but so far I haven’t found a single type of alcohol that I do like so I’m really not the best judge. I’ll do a more detailed post on Japanese alcohol in the future (believe it or not, there’s a lot more to it than sake). For now, just know that sake and kirin (a sweeter rice wine often used in cooking) are indeed made entirely of rice in a rather interesting process.

But not all rice drinks are alcoholic. While rice milk (a staple in US health food stores) hasn’t caught on in Japan (though, to my knowledge, there haven’t been any serious attempts to market it here either), Japan has its own non-alcoholic rice drink, amazake. Amazake is actually made from sake lees but its alcohol content is pretty much non-existent so it’s safe for those of all ages and carries no risk of becoming impaired or drunk. Amazake is generally served hot and is primarily sold at small restaurants and snack stands in winter months, though you can buy bottles of it (usually in the liquor section of stores) any time of the year. The consistency and taste vary considerably from place to place but it’s usually a little thick, has a slightly fermented taste, and is very sweet. During my time in Japan, I’ve had some amazake that I really like and some that I can’t stand, so it’s worth giving it a second chance if you don’t like it your first time.

As you can see, even from this brief overview, rice is firmly infused not only in Japan’s cuisine but in its culture as well. Despite the popularity of bread and other foreign foods, there appears to be no danger of rice losing its place at nearly every Japanese meal or its role as a one of the country’s defining elements.


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