Rice and the Japanese people are inseparable. A typical Japanese morning starts with the aroma of freshly cooked rice filling up the kitchen. It may not sound like much, but a bowl of steamy rice, miso soup and a few slices of pickles make a full breakfast for any Japanese. As flour is important to the western food culture, rice has influenced the Japanese lives throughout its history: it has been the center of Japanese economy at one point or another as well as diet, culture, technology, and religion.

Japanese cuisine or WASHOKU being designated as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, rice plays a significant role in Washoku, not just in forms of grains but also in many different processed styles from drinks to desserts.

Improvements of rice species and technological development in agriculture have enabled the farmers to grow rice all over Japan.  You can see how rice takes up an important part in the Japanese food culture just by searching for brands of rice.  There are over 300 kinds of rice grown in Japan.  Price of rice varies depending on the quality, which is judged by taste, flavor, appearance, climate, water, farming methods, location of production, and more.  Only a handful of brands are designated as top grade rice.  The Japanese not only make efforts to create high quality rice, but also in the art of rice cooking. Rice cooker industry is highly competitive and new features are introduced every season to bring out the best flavors of rice.

The pursuit and passion for rice do not end here.  The French have created sommeliers who are experts in wines.  Guess what we have in Japan?  Yes, we have rice sommeliers.  There are official standard tests to become a rice sommelier, and participants are often working as rice experts in rice industries or in food businesses.

Food is always closely related to any culture.  In some countries, “chicken soup” is a dish you eat when you are sick and weakened and it is a symbol for comfort. For the Japanese it is rice. Rice is the soul food of Japanese people.  First baby meal is liquid rice porridge in Japan.  When a child is sick, mom makes lightly salted rice porridge so that the child can regain strength.  As a child in Japan, we typically grow up with memories of school trips and other school events when you get to eat bento lunches, a lunch box prepared at home.  Standard lunch box contains seasoned fried chickens, sautéed sausages, and sweet flavored Japanese omelets, but rice dominates the lunch box.  Onigiri, or sometimes called Omusubi, is a must-have item in such lunch boxes.

Onigiri is a symbol of Japanese lunch culture.  It is a simple rice ball, but with deep pockets.  Typical form of onigiri is triangular and wrapped in nori (seaweed).  Onigiri can be creatively flavored.  If the rice used to make onigiri is high grade brand rice, it is often recommended to be eaten with only a small amount of salt to enjoy the sweet flavor of rice itself.  However, variation to flavor an onigiri is limitless.  When you have a chance to visit a supermarket in Japan, please try to find the aisle where they sell condiments to flavor rice. You will be surprised to see all the different brands and unique flavors they carry.

Food culture naturally keeps evolving.  Shapes and flavors onigiri and sushi are invented continuously and they fill the ready-to-eat food sections at convenience stores and supermarkets. One of the unique menus you can find in some Japanese hamburger shops are rice burgers.  Instead of buns, they use rice patties to make a sandwich.

While new rice dish menus emerge, traditional ones have been taken a fresh look. Traditional onigiris are lined up on shelves with a more prestige appearances now.  A high grade rice and higher quality ingredients are used to create these products.

It is not an overstatement that Japanese cannot live without rice.  Rice is rooted deeply in our lives and gives us strength and power to do what we do every day.  New crops are in stores in the fall and the Japanese almost ritually look forward to trying ‘rice-nouveau’ every year.  The sweet flavor and stickiness, the shiny glazy look of freshly cooked steamy rice grasp the heart and stomach of any Japanese.  And that is a fact.

A French said, “This is a dish called ‘gratin’”.
A Japanese replied, “That will taste good with rice”.
An American said, “This is a BBQ beef steak”.
The Japanese replied, “That will taste good with rice”.
A Hindu said, “This is ‘chicken masala curry’”.
The Japanese replied, “That will taste good with rice”.
A Chinese said, “This is pork steamed dumpling”.
The Japanese replied, “That will taste good with rice”.
And another Japanese said, “This is a noodle dish called ‘Ramen’”.
The Japanese answered, “Oh, that is really good with rice.”