Rice is the cornerstone of every Japanese meal. If there ain’t rice – it ain’t a meal. Really. It’s not uncommon to see noodles accompanied by rice in Japan – it’s that important. Here’s the thing. The texture and flavour of high-prestige, short-grain white rice dictated the development of all other okazu (side dishes) and so if you’re cooking Japanese, always, always, always use Japanese rice, and never ever, ever substitute it with basmati, jasmine, or other types of rice. It just won’t work. The flavours won’t mesh. Just don’t do it.
What to buy
Lucky for you it’s easy to buy all kinds of “Japanese” (Japonica) rice in North America (mostly from California). And if you are thinking of doing a lot of Japanese cooking, it’s worth heading to an Asian or Japanese specialty store to purchase a large bag of high quality rice.
Uruchi mai (White rice): If you are going to keep just one type of rice in your cupboard for Japanese meals, make it this one. This short-grained rice has been polished (the outer bran scrubbed off) and the germ removed to give it its white colour. Use this for everyday steamed rice, onigiri rice balls, fried rice, and sushi.
Genmai (Brown rice): [above right] Japanese brown rice can be a little hard to find, but is usually available at large Japanese specialty stores. Generally associated by the Japanese baby boomer generation with prison meals (their equivalent to “crust of bread”) genmai has only relatively recently become popular for its health benefits. Unpolished or only partially polished, genmai hasn’t been stripped of its germ (where the protein lies) or bran covering (fibre). It has a nutty flavour, won’t stick together readily like white rice does, and requires about 15% more cooking water. If you’re trying to keep your rice healthy while retaining some of the qualities of white rice, you can use a 50/50 mix of genmai with white rice.
Haiga mai (Half-polished rice): [above left] Haiga mai is the perfect compromise for the health-conscious who also want to maintain the ideal taste and texture of white rice. The bran has been removed, but the germ remains. Haiga mai has nearly all of the benefits of brown rice but cooks and tastes more like white rice. You can find it at select Asian specialty markets (like the Fujiya at Clark and Venables in Vancouver).
Store it in a tightly sealed bag in a cool, dark place. As long as it’s not spoiled by humidity, it should keep for at least a year.