Monday, March 22, 2010

Rice 101

Before I came to Japan, I didn't have much respect for rice. Most of the rice I'd eaten in the U.S. had been mushy and without much flavor - I much preferred pasta or bread.

Of course in Japan, rice is king. No meal is complete without rice, and the Japanese seem to have a special fondness for their staple food that's beyond anything Americans feel for our cuisine. As one Japanese woman told me, "Even if we have plenty of other food, without rice, we feel like we do not have enough to eat." Even beyond cuisine, rice occupies a privileged place in Japanese culture. In Japanese, the kanji, Chinese character, for man (男) combines the characters for rice paddy (田) and power (カ) - so maleness literally translates to power for the rice paddy. And in general, the character for rice paddy is used in most words or expressions related to rural life - field (畑), village (里), hometown (田舎). The traditional religion Shinto also uses rice, either the grains itself or the straw, as sacred offerings and as a symbol to mark barriers between the external world and the sacred grounds of shrines.

A tori (the barrier marking the entrance of a Shinto shrine) in Takayama adorned with a rice-straw rope

So even though younger Japanese are eating less and less rice (largely due to the influence of Western culture - including the U.S. government's decision during the post-war occupation to add bread to school lunch menus), rice is still an everyday part of living in Japan. As the farm is now starting to prepare for this year's rice crop, I'd like to share a little of what I've learned about rice during my six months in Japan.

First of all, there are several different varieties of the plant itself. Today, most Japanese farmers grow only japonica, which is the short-grain, slightly sticky variety that most of us associate with sushi. Japonica can be eaten as either brown rice (simply removed of its chaff, or outer husk) or white rice (with the bran, the inner husk and the germ, removed by a polishing process). While most people prefer white japonica, unpolished brown japonica has a higher nutritional value. Japonica also comes in a stickier variety, called mochigome, which is used to make the traditional sweet rice cakes known as mochi. In addition to japonica, Japan also produces several heirloom varieties of rice, including black rice and red rice. Of all the varieties, red rice is by far my favorite - it has a lovely bran-like, almost nutty, taste and a slightly sticker texture than normal japonica. Unfortunately, it's also the rarest variety. Even many Japanese had never had red rice before coming to ARI.

Besides being the staple carbohydrate, rice is also processed to create any number of sweets and snacks. Mochigome is pounded into mochi (see pictures below), which can be eaten in any number of ways - as daifuku (my favorite! Soft mochi dumplings with sweet filling), in savory soups, or even with ice cream. Rice is also processed into rice flour, which is used to make sweet dango dumplings or crunchy senbei rice crackers. And of course, we mustn't forget sake, rice wine, which still seems to be the national favorite when it comes to alcohol.

Benjamin (Germany) merrily pounding the mochi during our community mochi-making in January

Aya (Japan) making dumplings from the pounded mochi in the kitchen

An example of traditional mochi sweets (the pink cakes wrapped in leaves on the right) from our inn in Nagano. Delicious!

Colorful kegs of sake at a Shinto shrine in Tokyo

So back to ARI: The rice won't be transplanted to the paddies until May, but we've already started preparing the paddies and the seedlings for the growing season. The farm section worked throughout the winter digging irrigation ditches in the newest ARI paddy; we collected and sieved paddy soil to use for the rice seedlings; and we've already released aigamo (a flightless breed of duck) into one of the paddies as weed management. This weekend, we also selected the rice seeds for the year from the unhusked grains remaining from last year's harvest. Usually, you can use around 30% of harvested rice as seeds for the next crop. This coming week, the farm section will sow the seedlings in the greenhouse, where they can grow in comfort until transplanting in May.

Gussan (Japan) releasing the aigamo into the paddy

As the rice season approaches, I'm constantly surprised, even amazed, by the importance many of the Japanese at ARI attach to the rice harvest. For them, growing rice is about more than just providing food - it's an activity of emotional importance. As the Japanese crops manager told me last week, "To me, sowing the rice every year is a special chance. Who knows how many times in our lives we will have the chance to sow rice - maybe 50, maybe 60 times?" He said he understands other crops, but "rice is a mystery to me. [Even after several years growing rice,] I still don't understand how it works."

Although I don't quite understand the connection he feels to rice, it makes me think that I should be more aware of and more thankful for the food I eat. As we say before every meal in Japan, itadakimasu! (Thank you for what I am about to receive)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Back in Tochigi...

My dad left Japan last week, after a whirl-wind tour that included Tokyo, Nagano prefecture, and ARI. We saw a traditional kabuki performance at Tokyo's most famous theater; we toured plum-blossom bedecked shrines and moss-covered temples; we saw the famous onsen monkeys of Nagano; we ate more delicious Japanese food than we should have (including parts of tuna that I didn't even know were edible...). And my dad worked as a volunteer at ARI for one day, joining the daily farm work and helping us put up greenhouses for the spring seedlings. It was wonderful to spend some time with family after five months apart, and I really enjoyed showing my dad around my new home.

Part of our traditional kaiseki dinner in Nagano


Exploring the mossy Buddhist temples of Kamakura

Matsumoto castle in Nagano prefecture

In front of the central Shinto shrine in Kamakura

Shibuya crossing, Tokyo in the rain

Watching my dad, the ever-curious and ever-adventurous, explore Japan reminded me that my year at ARI is a precious opportunity to explore, to grow, to get out there and try new things. He saw every experience during our trip as a way to learn more about Japan and about how the Japanese view the world. Even the most mundane daily activities - riding the bus, pushing our way through a crowded Tokyo subway station, eating ramen noodles - became a way to explore Japanese culture. His excitement and curiosity made me realize that I'd become somewhat passive during the slow and sometimes lonely winter months at ARI. I missed my friends and family at home, I was a little bored with winter farm work (not as active or as fun as growing-season work), and I started to just drift. My dad's fresh enthusiasm reminded me that I need to make the most of my time in Japan with this amazing group of people - otherwise I'll have missed an invaluable opportunity.

So now I'm getting psyched again. My roommate and I are starting to plan our individual vegetable plot (squash, snow peas, bell peppers?), which I'm hoping to manage using natural farming methods that don't rely on compost or heavy cultivation so that I can transfer my experience to the U.S. next year. I'm continuing to work on my Japanese (にほんごを べんきょうしる). I'm enjoying doing yoga every day with several other volunteers. And, as always, I'm continuing to learn about food, food security, and what "development" means for people around the world. The new class of participants arrive in just three weeks, and the sakura (cherry) blossoms will be coming just behind them - it's a time of new beginnings, and I'm excited to see what the next months have in store for me.