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

The Guardian - Cook - - Introduction - Michael Booth Michael Booth is a free­lance jour­nal­ist and au­thor of sev­eral books. His most re­cent, The Mean­ing of Rice and Other Tales from the Belly of Ja­pan, is out now (Jonathan Cape); michael-booth.com

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.

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