The Good Grain

The Ultimate Bowl of Rice

Culture Lifestyle

Rice expert Nishijima Toyozō answers questions on how to prepare a delicious bowl, with tips on the best way to choose, cook, and serve the rice. Nishijima owns Suzunobu, a rice shop in Tokyo with one of the biggest selections in the country.

Nishijima Toyozō
Born in Tokyo in 1962. After graduating from the School of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science at Kitasato University, he worked as a consultant for the Hokkaidō Agricultural Modernization Technology Research Center. In 1988 he took over his family business, the rice shop Suzunobu, Inc. Today he provides support for regional projects aimed at the development of new rice brands and other community revitalization efforts, using his knowledge of agriculture and experiences to bridge rural areas and consumers. Author of Kyō wa kono kome (Today It’s This Rice), Okome no tatsujin ga kangaeru gohan kihonchō (A Rice Expert’s Directory of Cooked Rice), and other works.

Nishijima Toyozō is the owner of Suzunobu, a rice shop in Tokyo, and a “five-star rice master” certified by the Japan Rice Retailers Association. When not at his shop meeting with customers and answering their questions, he travels around the country, providing support to farming communities that hope to establish their own brands. Nishijima boasts encyclopedic knowledge about rice. In this interview he describes how to make the most delicious rice possible.

First, Know What You Want

INTERVIEWER What is the best way to choose rice?

NISHIJIMA TOYOZŌ When you go to a rice shop, the first thing to do is to let the clerk know what kind of rice you like. Do you like it on the firm side or soft? Do you want something with a natural sweetness or a plainer flavor? How important to you is the way it feels when you swallow it? You should try to find something that suits your tastes rather than just choosing a brand name. If you’re not sure what you like, you could sample rice from different regions, working your way from Hokkaidō down to Kyūshū. You could also stick with a particular brand, like Koshihikari, sampling crops of the same variety grown in different regions and comparing their flavor.

Rice shops are places where you do more than just buy a certain brand of rice, as you would at a supermarket. You can ask as many questions as you want about flavor, place of production, food safety . . . anything. Shops that offer a wide variety of items can tell you about the distinguishing features of the grains they carry. They also have information only rice shops are privy to. In the process of asking about selecting, washing, cooking, and eating rice and learning more about the grain, you will be able to figure out what you like.

INTERVIEWER Are there any brands of rice you would recommend?

NISHIJIMA Suzunobu carries more than a hundred varieties. The number peaks in the fall when rice is harvested and gradually drops as the rice sells out. In recent years, interest has grown in regional brand development, and many communities are either trying to create their own brand or produce a uniquely local take on an existing brand to set themselves apart from competitors.

In terms of taste, Japanese rice falls into two main types, Koshihikari and Sasanishiki, which have both been on the market for many years. Koshihikari-style rice is stickier and has a fuller flavor. It’s a good choice for dinners, lunch boxes, and even Western-style meals. Sasanishiki-type rice is plainer and goes down the throat smoothly. The latter is a good choice for Japanese-style breakfasts.

Tsuyahime and Nanatsuboshi, which have been attracting much attention lately, are Sasanishiki types. Milky Queen, Yumegokochi, and Yumepirika are Koshihikari types. Hopes are high that Yumepirika, which is cultivated in Hokkaido, will someday be as popular as the classic Koshihikari brand. It is already ranked alongside Koshihikari grown in Niigata Prefecture’s celebrated Uonuma district in terms of flavor.

Even if it is the same variety, rice produced in coastal areas goes well with seafood, while rice grown in mountainous regions is a match for mushrooms and edible wild plants. If you want a truly superb bowl of rice, go to the region where it is grown, prepare it with the local water, and serve it with side dishes made from local ingredients. This is the ultimate rice dining experience.

Tosa Tenkū no Sato, for example, is produced in the mountainous areas of Kōchi Prefecture on a limited scale. It’s the perfect complement to the mountain delicacies of the island of Shikoku, of course; it also tastes good with dishes made from bonito caught locally.

Ensuring the Best Flavor

INTERVIEWER How should you store rice?

NISHIJIMA Rice should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator’s vegetable compartment. I wouldn’t recommend leaving it in the original bag, even if you tie it shut with a rubber band. In the old days, rice could be stored at room temperature, but the grains today tend to be softer and spoil more easily, and care must be taken in how they are stored. Proper storage is essential for maintaining flavor. Rice that isn’t put away properly will gradually dry out and harden.

If you don’t have enough room in your vegetable compartment, I recommend buying smaller quantities of rice—enough to last from a week to ten days. This is a good way to try out a variety of brands, too.

INTERVIEWER What is the best way to wash rice?

NISHIJIMA People used to think you had to wash rice with the palm of the hand, but the rice today shouldn’t be scrubbed that hard.

First, add cold water and swirl the rice around for about ten seconds. Discard the water immediately and repeat this step. The water in which you washed the rice will be cloudy white in color. It’s important to discard it quickly, so the rice doesn’t absorb it.

Second, place your hand in the bowl with your fingers extended, as if they are gripping a ball. Move your fingers around the bowl about twenty times in a rhythmical, whisk-like motion. The rice is washed by the action of the grains rubbing against each other, rather than by your hand.

Third, rinse the rice in cold water two more times. If you’re using rice less than a year old, this is the last step.

Fourth, if your rice is older than a year, whisk it ten more times and then rinse it with water twice more. From start to finish, washing the rice should take you somewhere from a minute and a half to three minutes. Take care not to wash it too long or too hard, since doing so will mean a loss of flavor.

Many people think washing rice is just one step in the process, but it actually has the most bearing on how the rice will turn out and is the most important one.

INTERVIEWER Are there any dos or don’ts when it comes to using a rice cooker?

NISHIJIMA The latest models have a lot of settings. Some rice cookers automatically determine the amount of time the rice needs to soak, and others beep when the cooked rice has been cooked and steamed. You should check and see what automatic functions your rice cooker has. When rice doesn’t come out right, it is usually because of a problem in soaking time or the amount of water used. Sometimes the rice cooker comes with a measuring cup for no-wash rice. Be sure you don’t use this for regular rice, because the amount of water will be off.

One step a lot of people forget is fluffing the rice after it cooks and steams—stirring it softly with the rice scoop, in the process bringing the rice from the bottom of the pot to the top. Fluffing redistributes the moisture so that each grain gets an equal amount and locks in the flavor. If you forget this step, the grains on the top will be dry and lose their flavor, and the rice on the bottom will be mushy. Fluffing is the final step—and an essential one—to making delicious rice.

The Importance of Education

INTERVIEWER Do you think the rise in the number of new brands will change the way Japanese think about rice?

NISHIJIMA The Japanese have cultivated and eaten rice since the Yayoi period [ca. 300 BC–ca. 300 AD]. Rice was something they took for granted, like water and air. New varieties were developed that better met the requirements of Japan’s climate and Japanese tastes. Today the rice sold is of a uniformly high quality. The downside to this, though, is that price is much more of a concern than brand or the region where the rice is grown. Farmers choose Koshihikari, the most popular type of the grain, to play it safe. With fewer growers willing to produce unusual local strains, we’ve seen an increase in farmland left fallow and a shortage of younger people willing to take over family farms.

Recently, however, there have been growing moves in rural areas—particularly among younger farmers—to reverse this trend by developing distinctive local brands. One initiative I am undertaking is the production of Suzunobu Project Rice. This brings together farmers, local governments, agricultural experiment stations, and other parties to create new brands. To date, we have achieved sixty brands.

The project’s long-term goals are to get consumers to choose rice on the basis of their taste preferences and to eliminate preconceived notions of where the “best” rice is grown. The project is designed to close the gap between regions and pave the way for a new age of rice. We also put effort into food education and making children more knowledgeable about rice.

A foreigner once asked me, “I don’t understand why it costs so much to produce rice in Japan. Wouldn’t rice be cheaper if it were grown on a larger scale and on larger tracts of land?” But the rice in Japan tastes as good as it does precisely because of our mountains and water. The knowledge farmers have of flavor, cultivation techniques, safety management, and so on was acquired on these small paddies. This is what enabled us to produce some of the highest-quality rice in the world. It’s great that non-Japanese are learning more about Japanese rice, but I also want the Japanese people to have a deeper knowledge of the subject. This, I believe, would bring us one step closer to making Japan’s rice even more delicious.

(Originally written in Japanese. Photographs by Matsuzaki Nobusato.)

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