Blog photo… rice fields on the left and 4 spoons with various rice grains on the right

Japanese Rice 101 – All About the Asian Staple Food

Did you know that rice is the most widely consumed food in the world? It’s true! Rice is eaten all over Asia, Latin America, and Africa, and countless varieties of the plant are grown all over the globe.

In Japan, they eat as much as 134 pounds of rice per person per year! It’s no wonder why – rice is delicious, filling, easy to prepare, and it can go with almost any dish.

Besides being a staple food, rice is a big part of Japanese cultural identity and a driving force of the country’s economy. So, if you’re interested in Japanese cuisine, it’s time to scratch the surface and learn the basics of rice!

In this blog post, I’ll cover everything from the different types of rice used in Japanese cuisine to how to store it. Let’s jump right in!

The Three Main Types of Rice

Whenever you go to a supermarket, you’ll be faced with a choice: which type of rice should you get?

Many people don’t think twice when they pick up a bag of rice from the shelf, but your selection of rice really matters. Different cuisines require different rice consistency, stickiness, and fluffiness – so choose your recipe before heading to the supermarket!

There are hundreds of rice cultivars out there, but they all fall into three categories based on grain shape: long, medium, and short-grain rice.

Long-grain rice
This type of rice is easy to recognize – its distinct long and slim shape is noticeable at first glance.

With popular varieties like Jasmine and Basmati rice, long-grain rice is used in many western dishes, but it’s also present in some Asian cuisines like Thai. It’s a popular choice for pilafs, or simply for plain rice to go with meat or fish.

When you cook long-grain rice, it gets quite fluffy and the grains don’t stick to one another. Due to its shape, long-grain rice cooks quickly and evenly.

Medium-grain rice
You might think that medium and short-grain rice are one and the same. While you can substitute one for another for some recipes, medium-grain rice is slightly sticky and chewy – but not nearly as much as short-grain. 

Medium-grain is often used for risotto and paella, and the most popular cultivars are Valencia and Bomba. It’s frequently used in Chinese cuisine too.

Short-grain rice
The majority of Japanese food recipes call for short-grain rice. This plump type of rice is almost as wide as it is long, and it gives for an amazingly thick, sticky texture without being mushy. 

Short-grain rice is very starchy, which gives it its uniquely sticky consistency. The high starch content also makes it important to rinse the rice before cooking to avoid excess stickiness and clumping.

The most popular cultivars include Koshihikari and Sasanishiki, both of which are often used in sushi.  

The Japanese also use a super-sticky variety for desserts like mochi – thus the name of this sticky, opaque white rice is Mochigome. It’s also sometimes called glutinous rice and sweet rice.

Brown rice
All rice starts off as brown rice – it’s later milled and processed to gain its pearl white color. Brown rice contains bran and germ, which give it its hue and are packed with nutrients.  

It’s fiber and protein-rich, but it requires (a much) longer cooking time and has a much shorter shelf life compared to white rice.
The Types of Rice Used in Japanese Cuisine
Almost all the rice used in Japan is short-grain, though some medium-grain varieties can be found.

If you’re eyeing a Japanese recipe and it doesn’t specify which type of rice to use – regular short-grain rice is a safe bet. Most of Japanese cuisine calls for the sticky, clingy rice that’s easy to grab with chopsticks or press into shape.

There are quite a few varieties of rice used in Japan, but it can mostly be divided into two (non-interchangeable) categories:

  • Uruchimai (粳米) is the prevalent type of rice in Japan. This is a common name for ordinary
    short-grain rice varieties that are characterized by a slightly translucent white color. You can make almost any Japanese recipe with uruchimai, with the exception of some sweets.
    That includes sushi, onigiri, all kinds of rice balls, omurice, and many others. In fact, even sake and vinegar are made of this type of rice.
    The most common uruchimai cultivars used in Japan include koshihikari, akitakomachi, and sasanishiki (particularly great for sushi!).
Mochi Sweets
  • Mochigome (餅米) is also known as sweet rice, sticky rice, and glutinous rice (although it doesn’t actually contain gluten – it’s just super sticky). This short-grain is known for its opaque
    white color. When cooked, it has a chewy texture and it’s extremely sticky, which makes it easy to press it into shape.
    Mochigome is typically used for sweets like mochi and wagashi, or special dishes like okowa.
Japanese Rice Vs. Other Common Types of Rice
Finding genuine Japanese rice (uruchimai) in stores in the west can be a hassle – but it’s worth it.

It’s not easy to find a suitable substitute for Japanese rice. Some people make do with medium-grain, but it’s just not the same – this less sticky variety may turn your homemade sushi into a crumbling
nightmare!

If you can’t find short-grain uruchimai at your local store, consider ordering it from Amazon or visiting your local Asian grocery store to find it!

Are Japanese rice and sticky rice the same?
In western countries, people sometimes refer to Japanese rice as sticky rice because it’s relatively stickier compared to other types of rice.

However, the term sticky rice means something different it Japan. Sticky rice specifically refers to mochigome, the super-sticky rice variety used for many sweets in Japanese cuisine!

Are Japanese rice and sushi rice the same thing?
You may find bags of Japanese rice labeled as sushi rice in your local store. For the most part, you’ll be getting the uruchimai you were after.

However, in truth, sushi rice – sumeshi, or sushi-meshi (酢飯) refers to specially prepared rice – boiled and vinegared.

Is Calrose rice the same as Japanese rice?
Back in 1948, Japanese-Americans sought a suitable alternative to Japanese rice that they could easily access in the US. That’s when they developed Calrose – a medium-grain cultivar grown in California.

With its moderate stickiness and pleasant flavor, Calrose is not the same as Japanese rice, but it’s frequently used as an alternative for Japanese recipes.

What’s the difference between Japanese rice and jasmine rice?
Japanese rice and jasmine rice are very different. With the majority of world production in Thailand and Cambodia, jasmine rice is a fragrant long-grain cultivar.

As a long-grain variety, jasmine rice stays fluffy and it doesn’t stick together. In addition, jasmine rice has a strong aroma that could contrast or overpower the other ingredients, especially if you attempt to make sushi.

Japanese Rice Preparation and Storage Tips

Last but not least, let’s take a look at a few tips and tricks that could make your experience with Japanese rice better!

  • Always rinse Japanese rice before cooking. The super-starchy short-grain may end up way stickier than you expect if you skip this step.  Rinsing the rice beforehand will remove some of the excess starch from the grains.
  • If you feel your rice is not cooked evenly, and especially if the core of the grain remains tough, soak the rice in water for about 30 minutes before cooking. This will let the grains soak up water without overcooking or burning it.
  • A good rice to water ratio is about 1:1.5. That means you should use 1.5 cups of water for every cup of rice you cook. So, if you cook 3 cups of rice, you’ll need 4.5 cups of water.
  • After you’re done cooking, drain excess water (if there is any), cover, and let the rice settle in steam for a few minutes. Then, use a fork to gently separate the rice and make it fluffier.
  • A rice cooker is a very worthy investment if you eat rice frequently.
  • Store your rice in a cool, dry place. You can keep it in the bag (sealed with a paperclip), but a lidded glass jar is ideal. With proper storage, white rice keeps virtually forever, while brown rice only lasts approximately 6 months.

Have a rice day!

Japanese cuisine has so many delicious dishes to offer – but you can only make it right with the proper ingredients. The signature texture and flavor of short-grain rice is the basis of Japanese cuisine, and as such, it should become a staple in any sushi, curry, onigiri, or fried rice lover’s home! Once you pick up a bag of Japanese rice, head over to the recipe section on my blog to find your next favorite Japan-inspired meal!

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