Rice—From Paddy to Cooking Pot
With some recipes you may want to try
By “Awake!” correspondent in Japan
THE author of the book The Kingdom of Japonica wrote that the Japanese people “lyve for the most part with herbes, fyshe, barley and ryce.” That was true in the 16th century; and it is still largely the case. Rice is the staple food of Japan.
The Japanese language has several words meaning “rice.” As usually served on the table it is gohan, meaning “cooked food,” or, literally, “honorable boiled rice.” Before the gohan appears on the table, however, a tremendous amount of work has to be done. First, take a look at the rice farmers and see how their okome, meaning “grain rice,” is obtained.
How It All Begins
Rice is an annual grass of the Graminaea family and is said to have 1,400 varieties. At the beginning of April, the farmers commence their work on cultivated rice (Oryza sativa) by breaking up the earth in their fields. Since most farms are small in size, big machinery is not used. For the initial preparation of the fields, small machinery sometimes is employed, although in some places oxen will be seen pulling the crude farm equipment.
During the first 10 days of May, the rough rice seed is sown in well-prepared beds or plots in a small area of a paddy. Since the flooding of the fields coincides with the sowing of the seed, the plots are built higher than the paddies. Within a month the seeds sprout, and the rich green seedlings grow strong, well packed together.
Usually, with the second week of June, the monsoon rains arrive. As the third week of June approaches, increased activity is observed in the paddies. For instance, to keep the levees firm, small plants having strong roots are placed on these embankments.
Before the actual transplanting takes place, the rice paddies are turned over again and all the grass and weeds are removed. Pieces of machinery resembling oversized lawn mowers are driven into the sodden fields. The farmers affix ropes to the machines and attach simple flat boards to the ropes. Then the men climb onto the boards and ride their water sleighs until the paddies are level.
Family members, friends and neighbors all lend a hand pulling up the seedlings. These are made into bunches, are tied and are put into baskets. Balancing two baskets hanging from a long pole across his shoulders, each farmer throws these bunches of seedlings across the paddies at well-distributed points.
Transplanting and Plant Care
Next, the exhausting work of transplanting gets under way. Men, women and children step into the muddy paddies. The law requires that their feet and legs be covered, and to make movement easier, the footwear fits snugly. Pieces of string that span the paddies are used as guidelines. Everyone stands in a row with a bunch of seedlings in his hand. Two to five seedlings are separated from a bunch and placed 20 to 30 centimeters (8 to 12 inches) apart. Each person transplants the seedlings in the area immediately within his reach. On the completion of a row, an individual at each end will bring the string in line for the next row. So it goes, hour after hour, until transplanting has been completed in all the fields. It could be dark before the weary transplanters can call it a day.
Walking between the rice fields at night can be quite an experience for a city dweller because the noise is like the thundering of freight trains. The rice fields’ harmless invaders are frogs. How they love that water! All night long, they puff and croak.
The farmers check the rice paddies daily. If the water is too deep, it will destroy the plants. Ratholes in the levees can play havoc with the water level; so these are plugged. At regular intervals, insecticides are sprayed on the plants; and there is a constant watch for injurious insects and plant diseases.
June has brought the rainy season, and with it hot, humid weather—and weeds, weeds and more weeds. The skilled eyes of the farmers’ wives search for these weeds and grasses that must be pulled out. As they plod through the rows of plants, the women scatter weed killer, said to be harmless to the rice. Soon each plant grows to a height of approximately 1.2 meters (4 feet). So, before long, all you can see moving through the paddies are the hats of the workers.
Fruits of Their Labors
Before the harvesting takes place, the water in the paddies is released. Although mechanical harvesting is possible, generally the farms are too small for the use of such machinery. During the month of October it is a matter of ‘all hands to the sickle.’ Each chop cuts off a handful of stalks. These are gathered and tied into bundles. Then each sheaf is hung over poles on a wooden frame in the fields and left to dry there for two or three days.
The separating of the grain from the stalk is done in the dried-out rice paddies. At this stage, light, easily operated machinery is brought into use. Bundles of rice are manually guided through the machines and the grains fall out at one end. Through vinyl pipes, the chaff is blown out in the opposite direction.
In Japan, the stripped stalks and chaff are used for fertilizer, fuel, packing, pillow stuffing and many other purposes. Here this type of farming produces about 11,772,000 to 13,165,000 tons of rice annually.
Between the paddy and the cooking pot the rice passes through many hands. Unfortunately, by the time it reaches the kitchen most of its nutritive value has been removed, as white, polished rice is preferred by the overwhelming majority. Since rice is not a complete food in itself, the average Japanese diet is supplemented with green vegetables, fish or meat. How?
Into the Cooking Pot
First, the rice has to be cooked. Allow half a cup of uncooked rice per person. Wash the rice thoroughly under cold running water, and let it drain through the rice until it runs clear. Put the rice in a colander and let it drain for an hour before cooking. The amount of water used varies according to the rice. As a rough guide, use 1 1/4 cups of water for one cup of Asian rice, and 1 3/4 cups of water for each cup of European or American rice. Experience will be your best teacher.
Next, put the rice and water together in a sturdy saucepan and cover it with a heavy lid. Bring the rice to a boil quickly, then lower the heat and let the contents simmer quietly for 20 minutes or until the water is absorbed. Leaving the lid on, turn up the heat for 20 or 30 seconds before removal from the heat. Let the rice stand for 10 to 20 minutes before serving. This final steaming in the retained heat helps to fluff up the rice.
Now to the food elements necessary for healthful life. The apprehensive can be reassured that Japanese cooking is essentially no more difficult than any other kind and a good deal easier than some. In this country, the simplest basic dinner consists of a clear soup with tidbits floating in it or a thick soup containing miso (bean paste), followed by a main course and ending with plain boiled rice and pickles.
A Lunchtime Snack
The Japanese word donburi means “a china bowl,” but this name has come to be attached to the kind of food that so frequently goes into the bowl. And what is that? Hot rice with various toppings, over which a sauce is poured. Economy and ease of preparation make this a favorite lunchtime snack. Japanese housewives can thus use up leftovers, as virtually any meat, fish or vegetable can be used for the topping.
A favorite is oyako donburi, meaning “parent and child bowl,” the “parent” consisting of chicken and the “child” being the egg. Why not try it?
To serve six persons, you will need 3 cups of raw rice, 350 grams (12 ounces) of boned chicken, 2 naganegi (long thick green onions) or a small bunch of spring onions, 4 eggs, 3 cups of chicken broth, 3/4 cup of light soy sauce and 3/4 cup of inexpensive white wine. Cook the rice in the basic way. Cut the chicken into medium-sized cubes, and cut the onions, including the green tops, into small slices. Put the broth into a saucepan, adding the soy sauce and wine. Heat, and when it comes to a boil, add the chicken. Simmer for five minutes, add the onions and cook for another minute. Taste for seasoning and correct the flavor, if necessary. Next, break the eggs into a large bowl and beat them well. Bring the soup stock to a boil again and gently pour in the eggs all at once. Continue heating until the mixture begins to boil around the edges of the pan. Then turn the heat down as low as possible and put on a lid. After three minutes, turn off the heat. The eggs will have coagulated into a soft mass resembling scrambled eggs. Put the hot rice into individual bowls and, with a ladle, spoon the chicken, egg and soup mixture over the top of the gohan. Incidentally, chopped parsley makes a decorative garnish.
A Japanese Favorite
If you are more adventurous, you could try making chirashi-zushi (uncaked sushi). Begin with enough boiled rice to serve four; other ingredients are vinegar, salt, sugar, sake (rice wine), 2 eggs, 100 grams (3 1/2 ounces) each of string beans, carrots, lotus roots (if available) and red pickled ginger or fresh root ginger, 200 grams (7 ounces) of small cooked shrimp (which have been peeled and deveined) and 4 dried mushrooms.
Put the rice into a large pan and season with 2 teaspoons of salt, 2 tablespoons of sugar and 2 1/2 tablespoons of vinegar, and mix well. Slice and boil the string beans for a few minutes, being careful not to overcook them. Drain and season with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of sugar; mix and put to one side. Make stock and cook almost everything in the same stock, but not at the same time, leaving the mushrooms until last. To make this stock, use 1 cup of boiling water. To this add 1/2 cup of soy sauce, 1/4 cup of sake and 1/2 cup of sugar. Bring this to a boil and then turn off the heat. Slice or shred the carrots and cook them in the stock until tender. Remove them from the stock and put in the peeled and chopped lotus roots, and simmer these until they are cooked. Put a tablespoon of soy sauce into a bowl, add the eggs and beat together. Fry the egg very thin and cut it into strips. Slice the soaked mushrooms and cook them in the stock for 2 minutes. Now the ginger can be cut into the thinnest possible slivers. Mix the shrimps, carrots and mushrooms into the rice. Then divide the rice mixture into four dishes, heaping it to a point. Arrange the rest of the ingredients on top in a decorative manner, reserving the ginger for the pinnacle.
Now, enjoy yourself. And may your appreciation for the rice farmers’ work be enhanced as you savor the flavors from the cooking pot.