Japanese rice, the next frontier

If you’re a fan of sushi, you’re familiar with the sticky Japonica rice that’s an integral part of it. It’s the backdrop to the theatre of sushi, the taste canvas that shows off the exquisite cuts of fish, but a new awareness is emerging. Contrary to what you may think, there’s a whole world of Japanese rice that’s been invisible to us, until now.

When Asian cuisine restaurant, SEPIAL’S KITCHEN announced they were hosting a Japanese rice tasting workshop I thought it was odd. I was definitely interested, but I wondered how something as neutral and mildly boring as rice could hold my attention for 3 hours.

I remember when the first sushi restaurant opened In Cape Town in the dodgy end of Long Street over 25 years ago. It was called the Tokyo Sun and slipping through the split-curtain noren to eat there was considered an act of culinary courage. Willingly consuming raw fish was a cultural threshold few South Africans had yet dared to cross.

These days, of course, we’re all aficionados of where to find the best sushi in town and wasabi is just another flavouring found in everything from vegan kale snacks to chocolate cake. So now a rice workshop. I’m intrigued.

We’re in Sepial’s tiny, spotless restaurant, part of the Salt Orchard precinct in Salt River, Cape Town. It’s a minimalist white and stainless steel space, the kitchen and all its accoutrements in full view of the dining area.

‘Rice is the next frontier,’ begins Botha Kruger, owner of WAZA, Cape Town based importer of Japanese handcrafted goods. He’s running the workshop in partnership with SEPIAL’S KITCHEN. WAZA is the rather clever combination of a quintessentially Japanese concept of harmony and flow, wa, meeting the za of South Africa.

When Botha asked a young Japanese intern working in his business, what Japanese food she missed the most whilst in South Africa, she replied without hesitation.

‘Rice. Even the rice in Japanese restaurants here is so bad.’ It shocked Botha that something as banal as rice could actually be bad. What was good rice then? Galvanised, he set out to discover the best premium rice he could find.

Botha shows us a beautiful map of Japan, points out the rice growing regions. Describes how rice grown in the colder climate of northern Hokkaido differs in quality from the more temperate regions. I’m reminded how cuisine always emerges out of geography.

‘When it comes to sushi, all the focus has been on the fish. That’s all starting to change as South African chefs start paying more attention to the rice.’ Botha continues.

First we are introduced to Koshihikari (Koshi rice) grown in the Ishikawa Prefecture. It’s considered to be the super-premium short grain rice of Japan, with a firm consistency, aroma and natural nutty and aromatic sweetness that is unparalleled in the rice world.

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Photo credit: WAZA — a selection of different Japanese rice varieties

Botha also showed us samples of Kuromai, a dark purple rice variant also produced by Yoshiki Tsukamoto who has an eclectic diversity of expertise ranging from designing light bulbs, specialising in antiques to yes, growing his own boutique rice which he sells under the brand name SKURO. The family-run farm uses no agricultural chemicals and only organic fertilizer. I’m struck again by what a difference it makes to my feeling about the food I eat when I know something of the person who produces it.

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Photo credit: Nina Geraghty — Kuromai purple rice

The purple rice (sometimes called ‘forbidden rice’ as it was so prized for its exceptional nutritional and antioxidant profile that only the Emperor was permitted to eat it) is still rare and expensive. It’s usually added, a few spoonfuls at a time to white rice as it cooks, lending it a delicately pale purplish hue.

I’m reminded of the beautifully presented meal I had in the home of Masanori and Wakako Oe who live in the Yamanashi prefecture in Japan. They too grow their own rice, and during my visit some years ago, I even spent a few hours helping them weed their paddy fields. They were able to name the provenance of every ingredient — all sourced from the interconnected web of their neighbourhood growers and producers. That delicious meal was imbued with nourishment far beyond its nutritional constituents. I felt drawn into their circle, for the duration of the visit, I belonged there.

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Photo credit: Nina Geraghty

What came as a surprise was to learn that all top sushi chefs in Japan craft their own unique and secret blend of rice, sourcing rice from different growing areas, combining the various characteristics of texture, consistency and flavour to achieve the ultimate blend of qualities they want to create. In this way, chefs become identified with their own special rice blend.

Rice is foundational to Japanese life, so much so, that the word for cooked rice gohan or meshi, can be used interchangeably to refer to the whole meal. Rice production has always been a communal activity with the same land being cultivated over generations and this remains so today, each region producing its own distinctive rice variant. Complementary industries have arisen in parallel, such as salt production leading in turn to the famous fermented condiments we know so well; soy sauce, miso and sake (made with fermented rice).

There is a whole lexicon describing rice in all its many forms. Mai is uncooked rice, shinmai is freshly harvested new crop rice which has a higher moisture content and is cooked with less water than Komai which is old crop rice. Asagohan is breakfast and yuuhan is dinner — literally translated as morning and evening rice.

Sepial with her bright eyes and huge smile, now takes the floor and her engaging enthusiasm for the best way to cook rice is contagious. She describes how the sticky quality we’re looking for occupies a narrow window between rice that is unmanageably sticky, and rice that isn’t sticky enough and falls apart unable to hold its shape. Much depends on the amount of starch present in the rice variant, and how the rice is washed, soaked and prepared before cooking. As with most Japanese cuisine, preparation is all.

Sepial is about to serve the rice which has been quietly cooking in the background in her rice cooker. One by one we put our noses to where the sweetish fragrance of fresh cooking rice is wafting out, sniff appreciatively and nod our heads. Yes. That slight sweetness is the aroma of perfectly cooked rice, Sepial tells us. We’re told that WAZA has created their own secret blend called MyMai (literally translated as My Rice), and we’re about to taste it.

By now, I’m hungry and happy that finally we are going to be making our own stuffed rice balls, onigiri and temaki (rice balls wrapped in nori seaweed). Sepial has lightly toasted the nori in sesame oil and salt and the resulting strip of seaweed is aromatic and delicately crisp. We learn how to stuff our rice balls with pickles or marinated fresh salmon pieces, afterwards adding a sprinkle of Furikake, a flavourful mix of dried fish and spices. Next, we’ll get to grill them on traditional Japanese Shichirin.

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Photo credit: Nina Geraghty

Shichirin are beautifully hand-crafted, portable cooking grills made out of diatomaceous earth. The process of mining the diatomaceous earth by hand is a story all of its own and the grills we’re about to use are made by a 4th generation family-owned business, Noto Nenshouki.

Photo credit: Nina Geraghty

They’re lightweight and have an amazing capacity to retain heat making them ideal for use over many hours. Traditionally, the fuel used is binchōtan, the Japanese-made charcoal prized by chefs for its even and long-lasting heat. This charcoal is clean-burning and virtually smoke-free, imparting an umami-smoked flavour unlike any other. Once the glowing charcoal is ready, the heat is fierce, ensuring that whatever you cook on the grill is crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside.

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Photo credit: WAZA

Before we take our first bite, Sepial invites us to appreciate the translucent sheen on each pearly grain of rice, a sign of well-prepared rice. Sinking my teeth into the fragrant earthy warmth of the rice ball I’ve just made, I’m astonished at the complexity, the richness of a single mouthful of rice. She asks us to notice how, despite its stickiness, each grain remains separate, and at the same time creamy and luscious.

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Photo credit: Nina Geraghty

And what of the irony in my celebrating the virtues of local cuisine in Japan, yet gladly enjoying those same foods across the world in Cape Town?

WAZA is importing so much more than just premium Japanese craftsmanship. It’s also importing a Japanese sensibility which values excellence, nuanced, subtle differences, the underrated understanding of terroir that’s usually limited to wine and cheese. In a world bent on homogenisation in service to convenience and supply chain efficiencies, WAZA offers a welcome relief from mass-produced blandness and mediocrity.

I do wrestle with the question of relevance. In a country where so many struggle to find enough to eat, what place does the sophisticated discernment between different kinds of Japanese rice have, and how can it possibly matter?

I’m going to put it this way. In our fluorescent-lit supermarket reality of same-same, where mega-corporates pay lip-service to offering variety in the form of so-called choices (hey, you can get this same product from 7 different brands), we’ve lost sight of particularity. To be able to perceive the infinite variety in something as humble and widespread as rice speaks to an appreciation for the incredible diversity of nature herself. A level of appreciation we soon won’t even be able to enjoy as more and more species are being lost forever through climate change and relentless exploitation of the earth.

Knowing that in Japan alone there are between 2–3 million small farms, each growing their own unique crop of rice, reinforces my conviction to support small food producers in this country, growing food collaboratively as promoted by NGO’s such as Abalimi Bezekhaya.

The binchōtan producer Mr Monobe of Monobe Seitan Sho, personally harvests the wood himself that he uses to make his charcoal. In this way, he remains connected to the awareness that Nature is a finite resource and needs responsible stewardship and care.

It’s impossible to truly value the distinctive particularities of products created in your own home region, and not extend that to include appreciation for diversity in all things. It’s that consciousness we need to cultivate more than anything if we are to create a different reality from the state of chaos our world is in.

Finally, I can’t ignore the purely personal. Being half-Japanese yet never having known that side of my heritage, I’m drawn to anything which offers a tantalising glimpse into that opaque part of my history. Fanciful as it may sound, eating food grown in Japan allows me to briefly inhabit the part of myself that is Japanese.

If nothing else, by bringing rice into the spotlight, one gains unexpected insights. Surprise! Suddenly rice has all the status of the main attraction. The pickles, the wasabi, the shoyu and even the fish exist only to pay tribute to the rice. It’s a whole new way of perceiving a dish.

Which I guess is what happens when what you always thought was a support act reveals itself to be the real star of the show.

writer | potter | re-emerging jazz singer living in Cape Town. Woman on the move in her Freedom Years. Wondering about what next, where to and with whom...

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