Monday, May 17, 2010

Give us this day our daily rice

Rice is big in Japan just like Tom Waits. It is the cornerstone of almost every meal and is usually as white as a yacht club. That isn’t to say there aren’t varieties of this omnipresent white short-grain carb bomb. Depending on how flush with yen you are, you can choose from dozens of strains. From the always popular Koshi hikari, to the techno-band sounding Kirara 397, to the sushi-centric Sasanishiki. Each is bred for certain properties such as resistance to disease or consistency of taste at varying temperatures.

For such a staple of daily sustenance, the price of rice is rather high – In the US, a 10kg bag (roughly 22 pounds) of basmati rice will cost you about $20. In Japan for the aforementioned Koshi Hikari (considered one of the best strains) you can pay up to 3 times that for the stuff. A 10kg bag from Niigata or Toyama (two of the prefectures well known for their rice) will set you back about $44, but you can get 10kg of the less honorable Hino hikari for as little as $25 assuming you are willing to slit your belly open in shame upon serving such swill to your guests.

One reason for the extremely high prices is that the whole industry is heavily protected. For a small country with such little arable land, producing enough rice to feed the whole population has proven to be almost impossible, and thus there have been more and more imports of rice from (shh, don’t tell) outside the country. However, to keep the market from flooding with cheaper imports, the government has thrown a massive tariff up to protect local product keeping the farmers happy. Catering to the rural farmer was the cornerstone of the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) and likely was a source of their 50 year stranglehold on the government (ended recently when Japan when Obama on the government and voted change for the first time since the US army overrode a Communist party victory shortly after WWII)

Anyhow, this isn’t just about rice, but about meals in general. The essence of Japanese eating is “Balance” (or as they say it, “baransu”) meaning that your meal should consist of a small amount a numerous kinds of food – dairy, protein, carbohydrate, etc. and not too much of any one thing, and to that end, not too much period. In case you are wondering why they are all so thin even though there are dishes like tempura and fried chicken as part of the usual rotation, it would be that when you order tempura, you get a small basket of five or six pieces, where as in the US it is usually sold as a challenge called “Tempurathon – can you finish it all?” and served in a drum typically associated with bulk commodity sales to some guy who has added six self-made notches to his belt thinking ‘it’s Japanese so it must be healthy.”

For a typical dinner you will have (of course) rice, some stir-fried vegetable, perhaps a small block of tofu, a piece of fish, a few bites of beef or pork, some seasoned root vegetable, some miso soup, and some pickled vegetables.

Here is picture of our usual evening fare:

Beef and green peppers cooked in a small fry pan at the table, a plate of breaded shrimp, some mushroom-heavy miso soup, rice with pickled Japanese plum (umeboshi - 梅干 ) some fancy pickled eggplant from Kyoto, and some chopped Mizuna.

So if you are wondering why it is that the Japanese can have such the kind of diet that would have Atkins shooting blood out of his eyes (noodles and grains galore) you may reflect on the portion sizes and mixture of foods at any given meal.

And yes, that is a table for four.

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