Rice is a rare food: edible and symbolic.
It’s often an unsung ingredient in the United States: clumped inside the small white carton, or turned into noodles and placed under expensive protein, or thrown back during lean college years as hot rice wine with higher alcohol content than beer.
Throughout most of Asia, however, rice is a measure of sophistication, celebrated in art, fundamental to national identity, and an ingredient prized and carefully sourced and rather expensive when the best is used.
In Tokyo, rice can cost as much as $30 a pound, and if you think that’s exorbitant, taste it and decide. The fancy stuff has more bite, more flavor, and combines density and delicacy so powerfully that the rice is as important to a meal as what’s served with it.
In Thailand, the world’s largest exporter of rice, the paddies shimmer in the sunlight and have a majestic presence during monsoon when the fields flood. As far as the eye can see: green! Rice provides a literal sense of plentitude.
From the farms to the plate
Sushi restaurants are judged by experts not only by the quality and rarity and seasonality of the fish, and how perfectly it is sliced, but also by the rice used as accompaniment. The source of the rice, how it is prepared, and when it is considered to be perfectly cooked, are all measures of the restaurant’s ability.
In music, as Keith Richards noted, the drummer is the bed on which the guitarist rests; with sushi, the rice is the bed for the fish. The skill used to select and serve the rice makes for that perfect marriage.
Similarly, in dining out in a Chinese restaurant, when a bowl of rice is placed alongside several smaller dishes of vegetables, fish, and meat, the quality and preparation takes time and patience. If the rice isn’t good, how good can anything else be? Without rice as the proper foundation for the protein and sauces, the meal lacks harmony.
It’s as simple as this: in a French restaurant, the chef will challenge a cook who wants employment to make a good omelet. Similarly, in an Asian restaurant, let’s see how you cook the rice.
Rice is also used to create noodles, piled atop plates and served with cold vegetables in the summer, and stirred in broths hot and spicy in winter to fight the cold. The ability to use rice in short and long form is a challenge.
Rice is also the main ingredient used to make sake. It’s only been in recent years that first-rate sake has made its way to the best tables in U.S. cities. Pairing sake with delicious food to enhance flavors and create depth is the task of a sommelier: regions, level of polish of the rice, and refinement. When you consider that sake is nothing more than water, rice, and koji (mold), you understand better the pivotal role of this humble grain.
Throughout Japan, sake brewers select sake rice, known as sakamai, from a number of regions. John Gauntner, the world’s leading authority on sake, noted recently on his website, sake-world.com, the severe judgment that leads to precise classifications of rice: “The five grades are Tokujo (the best), Tokuto (the 2nd best), Itto, Nitto and Santo, in descending order.” That rice in all its guises — kernels, noodles, sake — is the essential ingredient of Japanese gastronomy and the national drink makes perfect sense given its pivotal role in cultural and religious history.
What’s fascinating now is the way in which rice, once reserved for Shinto and Buddhist rituals, then limited to the upper classes or held to be important primarily for life-changing ceremonies of birth, marriage, and death, has become ubiquitous in much of Asian dining.
Rice never lost its meaning in this transformation, which is why it is revered and treated with profound care. People outside of Japan, China, Vietnam, India, Cambodia, Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore may consider rice an afterthought, but its importance in a meal is central to the enjoyment of all that goes with it. Rice comes from centuries-old traditions; its refinement came about in the twentieth century; its appearance as a daily food in the Asian diet is a modern development; and its uses in so many ways in the food is the result of contact with Western gastronomies.
Japan is one example, among others, where the role of rice in the cuisine has become a synecdoche of nationality. To understand much of Japanese culture, the history, and development of the continent’s modern gastronomy, look to rice. Especially in a nation where the unsaid is more important than what is spoken, rice gives us silent passage to customs, social organizations, and the intimacy of communities that cluster around agriculture. Rice in Japan was, until recently, a luxury item. As the nation’s affluence grew, the diet changed, and access to rice became more widespread. No longer restricted to religious ceremonies or to mark the occasion of critical events in one’s life, rice became the country’s staple.
Whether it’s the base for grilled meats, fish, eel, and shellfish, or it’s the substance that makes a great bed for the raw fish and shellfish used in sushi, or it’s in a bowl on which fresh or steamed vegetables are placed, or it’s used to make sake, a national drink, rice is the starch without which modern Japanese food and drink would be unimaginable.
Rice has also taken on deeper importance in recent years as Japan maintains the effort to keep its identity.
These days every possible cuisine is available in Japan, and the withering of taste for traditional Japanese food — washoku — is of concern for chefs and citizens. If Japanese food is replaced by foods from outside the country, if rice becomes less important than pasta and potatoes, what impact will this have on national identity?
So when you consider that rice has become broadly emblematic of affiliation, the way it is cooked and eaten and its place at the table take on deeper meaning. That’s not just a bowl for fried pork, a bed for raw tuna, noodles in soup, or a cold, clear beverage. That’s history.