Rice is Japan's most important crop, and has been cultivated across the country for over 2000 years. It is the primary staple food of the Japanese diet and of such fundamental importance to the Japanese culture that it was once used as currency, and the word for cooked rice (gohan) has become synonymous with the general meaning of "meal".
A bowl of cooked rice is a central part of traditional Japanese meals, but the grain is also processed into several different types of products including alcohol, vinegar and flour. The following are some common rice products and a list of common rice dishes that can be found across the country.
Common types of rice
White Rice (Hakumai)
Japanese rice is short grain and becomes sticky when cooked. The majority of Japanese rice is polished to remove the hard outer skin (rice bran) and consumed as hakumai ("white rice"). White rice is the foundation of Japanese cooking and is served with most meals.
Brown Rice (Genmai)
Unpolished rice (genmai) is less commonly sold as it is not considered to be as delicious as white rice. However, it has been recently gaining popularity as a health food because it is more nutritious than white rice. The outer bran retains much of the vitamins and minerals that are removed by polishing.
Other grains and seeds may be added to white rice to add flavor and nutrients. One variation simply adds barley (resulting in mugi gohan), but more elaborate varieties may include more than a dozen different additions. Multigrain rice is usually called by the number of different grains that are added (e.g. juhachikoku), and is served at some health food restaurants and ryokan.
Glutinous Rice (Mochigome)
Glutinous Rice (also known as mochi rice or sticky rice) is the second most common variety of Japanese rice. When cooked it is even stickier than regular Japanese rice and is commonly pounded into rice cakes, made into sweets, or used in rice dishes such as sekihan (glutinous rice with red beans).
Rice wine, commonly known as nihonshu or sake (sake also being used as a general term for alcohol), is an alcoholic drink made by fermenting rice. Sake comes in several varieties and may be served hot or cold. It is not traditionally drunk together with rice dishes as it is considered to be rice itself. Produced in a similar way, mirin is a sweet rice wine that is widely used in cooking.
Vinegar can also be produced from rice, and is used in dressings, pickles, marinades and for preparing sushi rice. Most Japanese rice vinegar is light in color and flavor and only mildly acidic. Dark vinegars are also produced and drank as a health drink.
Rice flour, made from ground up white or glutinous rice, is used to make various Japanese sweets and rice crackers (senbei), as a thickening agent in cooking, or as substitute for wheat flour to make bread. Rice flour is gluten free.
Rice Bran (Nuka)
Rice bran, or nuka, is the hard outer skin of the rice grains that is removed when polishing brown rice to make white rice. Rice bran has a high nutritional value and is used in a variety of ways in Japanese cooking, most commonly to make a type of pickle (nukazuke).
Common rice dishes
Cooked Rice (Gohan)
A bowl of rice forms the basis of most Japanese meals. It is often the central dish of meals such as with a Japanese breakfast or set meal (teishoku) in which the other dishes are traditionally considered accompaniments to the rice. A bowl of rice is commonly served as a set with miso soup and pickles. At Western style restaurants, cooked rice is served as an alternative to bread.
Rice Cakes (Mochi)
Rice cakes (mochi or omochi) are traditionally made from steamed and pounded glutinous rice. They are traditionally eaten on New Year, but have become a popular dish throughout the year. Rice cakes are prepared in a variety of ways and may be eaten fresh, grilled, fried or served in soups like dumplings.
Rice Balls (Onigiri)
Rice balls, or onigiri, are made of cooked rice and are commonly wrapped in nori seaweed. They are usually lightly seasoned with salt and often contain a filling such as umeboshi (pickled Japanese plum), okaka (dried bonito shavings and konbu) or salmon. Rice balls are a popular and inexpensive snack available at convenience stores, but are also commonly on the menu at other restaurants and izakaya.
Tamago Kake Gohan
Tamago kake gohan is a common breakfast dish consisting of a raw egg mixed into a bowl of rice. There are many variations on this simple comfort food, but most often it is seasoned with bit of soy sauce. Eggs are commonly eaten raw or partially cooked in Japan.
Chazuke, or ochazuke, is another simple comfort food consisting of hot water, tea, or light fish stock poured over rice (sometimes made with leftover rice). Chazuke is often garnished with toppings such as umeboshi, grilled salmon or pickles. Chazuke is commonly served at izakaya and is a popular dish to eat after drinking.
Kayu, or okayu, is Japanese rice porridge made by slowly cooking rice in lots of water. It tends to be thicker than other types of rice porridge or gruel and is a suitable dish for using left over rice. Kayu is often garnished with umeboshi and is commonly served to sick people because it is easily digestible.
Donburi refers to a bowl of plain cooked rice with some other food on top of it. Donburi are served at specialty restaurants, but they are also a common dish that can be found on all kinds of restaurants' menus. Some of the most popular varieties are gyudon (stewed beef), katsudon (tonkatsu), tendon (tempura), oyakodon (chicken and egg), tekkadon (tuna) and kaisendon (raw seafood).
Sushi can be defined as a dish that contains sushi rice, cooked white rice flavored with vinegar. There are various kinds of sushi dishes, such as nigirizushi (hand formed sushi), makizushi (rolled sushi), and chirashizushi (sushi rice topped with raw fish). Sushi is the most famous Japanese dish outside of Japan, and one of the most popular dishes among the Japanese themselves.
Fried Rice (Chahan)
Fried rice, or chahan, is a dish that was originally introduced from China. There are an infinite variety of ingredients that can be added to fried rice. Some common ones are peas, egg, green onions (negi), carrots and pork. Chahan is a suitable dish for using left over rice.
Omuraisu, short for omelet rice, is fried rice wrapped in a thin egg omelet. Omuraisu is usually shaped like an American football and may be garnished with ketchup or demi-glace sauce. It is a common diner or cafe food, although specialty omuraisu restaurants also exist.
Rice Crackers (Senbei)
Senbei are baked or grilled crackers made from rice flower. They come in many different shapes and sizes, and there are both savory and sweet varieties. Some of the most popular are flavored with a soy sauce glaze or wrapped in seaweed.
Rice flour and pounded glutinous rice (mochi) are among the most common ingredients of Japanese sweets alongside sweet beans. Some common sweets made with rice products include daifuku (sweetened red bean paste wrapped in mochi), kushi-dango (mochi dumplings on skewers) and ohagi (red bean paste wrapped in coarse pounded mochi rice).
Rice Bran Pickles (Nukazuke)
Rice bran pickles are common household pickles fermented in a mixture of roasted rice bran (nuka), salt and other ingredients. Whole vegetables are stirred into the mash and allowed to cure anywhere from a day to several months. The resulting crisp, salty and tangy pickles are then rinsed clean, sliced and served. Nukazuke are rich in lactobacillus and said to aid in digestion.
Rice Bread (Komepan)
Rice flour can be used to make a variety of different types of bread. Rice bread (komepan) is sold at many bakeries and supermarkets, and is a gluten free substitute for regular wheat flour bread.
Pick up your rice bowl with your hand while eating from it.
It is considered polite to finish every grain of rice that you have been served.
It is not common to pour soy sauce directly over rice.
Do not leave your chopsticks standing up vertically in your rice. This is done at funerals.
Rice fields and rice-related attractions
Rice fields are a common sight in the Japanese countryside and an image of nostalgia for many people. The fields start as flooded paddies in the early summer and turn into seas of green and gold waves as the rice grows and matures through the season. The crop of rice is then usually harvested in the fall, although some southern regions may plant more than one crop per year.