What rice means
Rice is boring – or so this author once thought, until a trip to north-eastern Japan. There he discovered the quasi-spiritual reasons why it is so highly prized the world over – and what makes it so much more than a mere supporting act
Rice’s true superpower is to comfort and soothe; it does so even while still growing in the paddies
Allow me to introduce you to a legend of the rice world, Katsuyuki Furukawa. He is the greatest rice farmer in Japan, winner of the country’s “best rice” competition for five years in a row, grower of rice so exceptional that, in the end, the organisers asked him very politely not to enter again, and gave him a special diamond lifetime achievement award instead.
His rice tastes really, really good. I got to know Furukawa-san last year at his small farm, just five paddy fields a couple of hours north of Tokyo in central Fukushima, where he tends his organic, biodynamic crop using – unusually – Chinese herbal medicine for fertiliser. Over two visits, I helped with planting and harvesting along with my teenage sons – partly as research for a book I was writing about Japanese food, but also as a kind of educational field trip for us all.
The March 2011 tsunami disaster devastated the coastal part of this prefecture, killing almost 16,000 people. Furukawa’s farm is separated from the coast by a mountain range but because of the ensuing nuclear disaster the Japanese stopped buying produce from the entire region, and he very nearly went bankrupt. He managed to keep going with the support of wellwishers and a distinctive Japanese brand of stoicism I have come so much to admire over the years. I wanted my sons to learn about this, as well as experience the work of a rice farmer: a brutal slog in mostly uncooperative conditions that ultimately results in those ridiculously cheap bags of glinting white (or, if you must, brown) grains that we take for granted on our supermarket shelves back home.
I also had amends to make. Ten years ago I wrote a book about Japanese food without really mentioning rice at all. I knew full well how central it was, not just to Japan’s food culture but to its culture as a whole – in Japanese the word gohan means both “cooked rice” and also “meal”. They use rice to make everything from sake to mochi cakes, with even the waste husk considered a valuable preserving agent. During the Edo period, the Japanese even paid their taxes in rice. And I was aware of the quasi-spiritual place it held at the core of Japanese identity, as indeed rice does in countries from Asia to Africa, the Middle East and beyond. Having asked innumerable Japanese what their favourite meal is, or what they would choose as their last meal, I knew too that “just a bowl of rice” was the most common answer.
But I didn’t write about rice back then, because rice is boring.
At least that’s what I thought. Rice was a bland accompaniment, a waste of stomach space that might be filled by more flavourful, complex, indulgent foods. Plus, according to a some of the prevailing dietary advice, rice was also somehow fattening. For many, polished white rice in particular symbolised empty calories, as most of the vitamins and minerals are lost when you mill the husk.
I have since come to my senses. You don’t need amazing recipes to appreciate the potential of rice; you don’t even need a recipe. As I discovered when I first tasted Furukawa’s rice, a glistening, steaming bowl on its own can itself be a transcendent thing.
Cooks the world over know that rice is a self-effacing support act for other flavours – be it a mere scattering of sesame seeds, to the showstopping heroics of a biryani. Rice amplifies and carries other flavours, allowing them to linger on the palate longer. And let’s not underestimate its most common function: rice is extremely effective at plugging a hunger hole. Italians know it, a billion inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent know it; the Chinese invented it.
But above all, rice’s true superpower is to comfort and soothe. In fact, it does this even while still growing in
the paddies. The electric viridescence of a ripening rice paddy is a balm for the eyes. Just looking at that vital grassy green could calm a rattlesnake.
There are snakes (rattle-less, as it happens, but plenty poisonous) in Furukawa’s fields. “There is no point in fighting nature,” he told me, cheerfully. We also encountered little neon green frogs, dragonflies, and loach. At one point he plunged his hand into the paddy’s banks and pulled out a muddy wriggling thing to demonstrate the thriving ecosystem his approach to rice farming fosters. I shrieked like a child as he placed it in my palm and my boys rolled their eyes at their father – not for the first time. I had already disgraced myself with the rice-planting machine as, on Furukawa’s nod, I engaged its motor and the whole thing had lunged forwards, wrenching me from my wellies with an unedifying sucking noise.
My book bears an eponymous promise: to provide the “meaning of rice”. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t really. Rice has as many meanings as there are people on every continent who rely on this miraculous seed – the most popular foodstuff in all the world, its irrigation and cultivation one of humanity’s most enduring achievements – for their sustenance, survival, comfort and pleasure.