What Is Rice Really?: The Tradition of Growing Short-Grain Rice

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Growing short-grain rice in Japan is critical to feeding the people of the country and feeding the spirit of its traditions. We continue our series from last month about growing short-grain rice with a look at how it is harvested and the traditions that embody the hopes of the Japanese people as they cultivate this important crop.

As we discussed in our previous post, rice is cultivated in four stages: sprouting, planting, growing and harvesting. Once rice is mature, usually at the end of summer, rice fields are allowed to dry in the sun or are drained. Harvesting machines, such as combines, gather and thresh the mature rice, so that rice seeds can be transported to drying facilities. Once at the drying facilities, warm air is forced through the rice to remove moisture so it can be stored and further processed. The dried rice is sent to mills where it is cleaned and dehulled, leaving the nutritious bran layer intact, resulting in brown rice. The brown rice is then packaged and sent to market or further polished to remove the bran layer, resulting in white rice. This short-grain white rice is also packaged and sent to market, where it is purchased by home cooks and chefs alike. By the time the rice reaches a person’s plate, it has been touched by many hands and by many days in the sun, water and wind!

Growing rice is a very important part of Japanese culture, and Japanese people participate in rich traditions that celebrate the entire process from initial planting to the harvest.

During the planting season in spring, the people of Sumiyoshi, in Osaka, believe that an auspicious beginning to the season will help the rice grow. To create a happy atmosphere that fosters good energy for the year’s crop, the community asks eight ceremonial maidens, called ue-me, to sanctify the rice seedlings at the local shrine. These blessed seedlings are given to the shimo ue-me, another group of women who participate in the festival, to plant them in the rice field to begin the season.

This elaborate and beautiful play is a delight to watch:

Planting leads to growing, and growing rice depends on abundant rain, fertile soil and lack of disease and pests. The people of Tsurugashima gather for a tradition called the Suneori Amagoi, during which they supplicate their water-loving snake god for abundant rain to help grow their rice crops. They build a giant decorative snake from bamboo and straw, imbue it with symbolic sacred charms, and parade it through the town to Kandachi Pond, where it is symbolically brought to its sacred home.

…and we mean giant snake:

During the summer months, pests can become a problem in the fields, so the people of Yata celebrate a tradition called Yata-no Mushi Okuri. During this festival, the people build a straw effigy of Saito Sanemori, a warrior from the Taira clan, who became angry when he was defeated in battle and whose grudge was transformed into an insect. They parade this effigy through the rice fields, with the goal of burning it at the end of the procession. The burning effigy is said to attract and kill the insects and pests in the area, and by doing so, release the crop from the warrior’s grudge.

As the summer turns into autumn, and the rice crops mature, rice-growing communities pray for an abundant harvest, giving thanks upon the season’s conclusion, when the land and the people can rest.

While traditions may vary from region to region, each of the seasons at the rice fields are beautiful, and if you’ve traveled to Japan to see them, we’d love to hear your stories.

What is Rice Really?: Growing Short-Grain Rice

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Rice, rice and more rice… we continue our series about What Is Rice Really? after having explored the plant, and short-grain, medium-grain and long-grain rice. Have you tried any of the recipes we’ve suggested yet?

While you were cooking rice, have you ever wondered how it actually gets from its beginnings as a tiny seed to your kitchen?

Growing rice—especially in Japan—is an endeavor both large and small. The careful attention that rice farmers pay to each minute detail of the rice growing process leads to the crop yields that feed the Japanese people. Farmers consider two things as they grow rice:? the plant itself and the environment used to grow it.

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Tilling the rice paddy

Rice farmers care for the rice plant from dormant seed through harvested food. Rice seeds were originally gathered from wild rice plants; however, in modern times, rice seeds are carefully selected and stored from previous harvests, as well as hybridized in cultivation facilities. The type and quality of the seed is hugely important to the type and quality of the yield in any given growing season. Rice seeds are the unhulled, unprocessed grains that are selected from the rice crop during harvest. Good seeds are generally of uniform size, will germinate 80% of the time, are free of pathogens, and produce seedlings that are vigorous.

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Seeds can be sown in a rice field in one of two ways: either through transplantation or direct seeding. Transplantation uses pre-germinated seeds that are sprouted in a seedbed comprised of water, nutrients (such as compost) and soil, generally indoors to protect them from contaminants and animals. Once the seeds have sprouted and have established themselves, they are transplanted, either by hand or by using a seeding machine. On the other hand, direct seeding allows farmers to broadcast ungerminated seeds in fields, and let them establish themselves wherever they fall. In larger farms, and especially in Japan, farmers transplant seeds to better ensure a safe and predictable harvest.

Growing rice is only possible when an environment is created that will allow the plants to flourish. Rice farmers are incredibly concerned with the quality of the soil, the quantity and purity of the water, the heat of the sun and protecting the plants from diseases and pests. Managing soil is the first step in rice production. During a Japanese winter, soil lays fallow and is allowed to rest. In the beginning of spring, around the time when cherry blossoms are in full bloom, rice fields or paddies are tilled, which means the soil is dug up, churned, and aerated with straw. Farmers amend the tilled soil with fertilizers, such as compost or nitrogen and potassium, and begin smoothing the rich, loamy land in preparation for drenching with water.

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Fall rice harvesting

Water in Japan is a vital resource–from rain, to rivers, to reservoirs–and rice is grown using wet cultivation. In the spring, the smoothed, tilled land is flooded with water to a uniform depth, and then planted with seedlings. Every day, the water level is monitored to ensure that the plants grow with adequate hydration, and that water is flowing with nutrients along flat fields and terraces. The intense heat of the summer months, combined with nutrient-rich soil and plentiful water, helps the rice plants to grow tall and healthy. Along with watching the water levels, farmers look out for insects that seek to consume the plants, weeds that want to overtake the growing areas and diseases that could infect the plants every day. You may have seen images of green rice paddies, but a successful crop grows tall and becomes golden through the summer, until it is ready for harvest in the fall.

Have you ever visited a rice field? We’d love to hear your experiences… and stay tuned for next month’s post about harvesting rice in Japan. The harvest season is an important time throughout Japan, when Japanese people share rich stories, traditions and festivals!

 

What is Rice Really?: Long-Grain Rice

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We continue our series about rice with information and recipes about this staple food by discussing long-grain rice—one of the most well-known types.

As with medium- and short-grain rices, long-grain rice is classified by its size. Grains are slender and usually four or five times longer than they are wide. The grains are 7mm in length or longer, and when cooked, result in separate, loose and soft grains. The majority of long-grain rice is grown in Northern India, Bangladesh, Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia, parts of China, Jordan, Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, and Argentina, Brazil and the United States in the Americas. The many types of long-grain rice include basmati varieties, fragrant jasmine and upland rice. The origin of long-grain rice contributes to its aroma, flavor and texture.

Biryani

Not only is long-grain rice distinct from medium- and short-grain rice in terms of size, texture and flavor, but it’s also processed somewhat differently. Long-grain rice kernels are more fragile than the shorter varieties, and require more delicate handling. Milling the rice requires a series of discs and rollers for removing the tough outer husk and inner husk one at a time to produce unbroken polished white grains. When packaged for export and sale, long-grain rice is usually stored in hard plastic containers or tightly packed into jute or burlap bags lined with hard plastic fibers, in order to protect the grains. Due to the more intense processing cycle, long-grain rice is often more expensive to buy, leading some countries to produce and export long-grain rice at a higher price, and import less expensive, potentially lower quality, rice to feed their people.

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Spicy Basmati Rice with Lentils and Spinach

The expense is often worth it. Long-grain rice has been used to create iconic dishes from so many cuisines across the globe. Full of flavor and aroma, the grains are used for Biryanis from India, Pilafs from the Middle East, Red Beans & Rice from the United States, and even plain boiled long-grain white rice as a staple in Southeast Asian dishes. Some of our favorite recipes include Thai Green Chicken Curry with fragrant jasmine rice, Gumbo Bowl and Spicy Basmati Rice with Lentils and Spinach. We love all of these! And when you make them, be sure to use long-grain rice… these fragile, distinct grains have such a unique texture—you’ll definitely love the results you get from using the right type of rice!

Let us know what you tried, and share your recipes below!

What is Rice Really?: Medium-Grain Rice

mediumgrainriceWe continue our series about rice this month with an exploration of medium-grain rice!

Medium-grain rice is classified as such because of its size, with each grain measuring two to three times longer than it is wide (or, in more scientific terms, between 5.0 – 5.99 mm in length, and possessing a grain shape with a ratio of 2.1-3.0). When cooked, medium-grain rice tends to be moist and to stick together, although the stickiness varies depending upon how it is prepared. Asia produces the largest amount of medium-grain rice, but it’s a popular crop elsewhere in the world, as well.? In the US, medium-grain rice is grown in Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas. ?It’s becoming an important crop in Africa and Latin America, too.

Different types of rice are suited to different types of cooking; for example, short-grain rice is the most common type used in Japanese cuisine, and long-grain rice, which we’ll talk about next month, is the most common type used in gourmet Indian and Middle Eastern dishes. Medium-grain rice also has its special uses. In Japanese cuisine, especially when made outside of Japan, medium-grain rice is often substituted for short-grain. It is also heavily consumed in parts of South India, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, West Africa, Central America, South America and in parts of Europe—especially Italy, where it is ideal for risottos. In the US South, medium-grain rice is used in puddings and desserts.

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Fava Bean Risotto

Medium-grain rice is used in some of the most delicious recipes! You can find an excellent recipe for Fava Bean Risotto, full of savory creaminess perfect for the spring crop of fresh fava beans. We also recommend this beautiful Arroz con Pollo, where the cook’s who’ve tried the recipe prefer using medium-grain rice to long-grain rice—and how about this spicy Cajun Jambalaya created by Emeril Lagasse? Don’t forget to finish it all off with this classic British Rice Pudding!

Medium-grain rice is versatile, nutritious and perfect for so many kinds of dishes. ?We hope you enjoy these recipes and please let us know how they turned out. Stay tuned for next month’s post about long-grain rice and more great recipes!

What is Rice Really?: Short-Grain Rice

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We’re back this month with our second blog about rice and the deep relationship we, as a human race, have with this amazing grain. Rice is grown all over the world, existing in many shapes, colors, sizes and flavors.

As we wrote last month, the rice plant is a type of grass, which produces fruit that ripens into grains of rice. When ready, the plants are harvested, dried and threshed, which results in unrefined rice grains that are separated from the plant stems and leaves. The unrefined grains go on to be cleaned, polished and packaged before they are used to create the many dishes that human societies all over the world relies on for nutrition and sustenance.

During the processing phase, rice grains are generally grouped by their origins, and then by size (short, medium or long grain), by the color of the refined grain (white, purple, red or black) and by its texture (loose or sticky). The initial de-husking removes the outer hull surrounding the rice grain, exposing the bran. The bran is either left on the rice—resulting in brown rice if the inner grain is white—or the bran is removed, which leaves the inner grain exposed for polishing, resulting in white rice. Colored rice varieties, like red and black, can be eaten with or without their bran covering.

Short grain white rice

Short grain white rice

Short-grain rice is the most common type used in Japanese cuisine, giving it the broad classification Japonica. (By contrast, long grain rice is categorized as Indica.) These grains are almost round in appearance, and typically less than 5mm long and 2.5 mm wide. These varieties require less water to cook and generally result in starchy or sticky rice. The short grain rice used in Japanese cooking is called uruchi mai, and while there are hundreds of varieties available, popular ones include koshihikari, hitomebore, akitakomachi and sasanishiki. These rice varieties have sweet, nutty flavors, ranging from sticky to loose and plump in texture, and are used to make sushi rice and served as an accompaniment to a meal. Mochi gome, also known as glutinous or sweet rice, is another type of extra-sticky, opaque, short-grain Japanese rice that is used to make mochi, a sweet delicacy with a chewy texture. All of these short grain rice varieties have been produced for decades (if not hundreds of years!) and grace the table of Japanese people across the globe.

Stay tuned for next month’s post about medium-grain rice and check out some of our favorite rice recipes online… especially this one for mochi!