Global rice varieties
There are three broad groups of rice: short-grain, medium-grain, and long-grain. Short-grain rice is the most commonly consumed in Japan and is mostly Japonica rice. Medium-grain is rice that is medium in length such as Calrose rice. Long-grain rice is long and thin like rice eaten in Thailand, and known as Indica rice.
In general, short-grain rice is best suited for sushi. It is soft and sticky* and keeps its shape when cooked. Further, it has more taste the more you chew, and also has a sweetness to it. Japan’s rice crop comes from rice paddies. Medium-grain rice such as Calrose rice is mainly grown in upland and dry areas in places like America and Australia. Through selective breeding, medium-grain rice has become glossy when cooked and can now be used for sushi. On the other hand, long-grain rice like Indica is not sticky enough and cannot be used for sushi rice. It is suitable to be mixed with sauces or in dishes where the flavor is added like fried rice.
*There are two types of starch in rice: Amylose and Amylopectin. Amylopectin is what makes rice sticky when it’s been cooked. The Amylopectin content of Japonica rice is high at approximately 80%. On the other hand, Indica rice is low at 70%, so it is less sticky.
Japanese rice varieties
Currently, there are about 600 varieties of rice registered domestically in Japan, and about 260 varieties are produced as a staple food. If you consider just crops, the top 10 varieties occupy almost 80% of the total crop area. Of those, Koshihikari (コシヒカリ) takes up an impressive 30%. The next is Hitomebore (ひとめぼれ) at 9.4%. After that is Hinohikari (ひのひかり) with 8.9%. Akitakomachi (あきたこまち) is 7.0%. Nanatsuboshi (ななつぼし) is at 3.5% and the top 5 have not changed for the past few years. These varieties are the types of rice that consumers to eat at home.
Varieties of sushi rice
On the other hand, the usual rice types for sushi are Sasanishiki (ササニシキ), Hatsushimo (ハツシモ), and Koshihikari (コシヒカリ). However, Sasanishiki only takes up 1/20 the space compared to its peak when it shared the top 2 spots with Koshikari, and Hatsushimo, which is less commonly seen, has become known as the “rice of dreams.”
In general, Koshihikari is sticky with a stronger density, it is plump with a good luster when cooked. This quality and its taste have earned it the top reputation among sushi chefs. Sasanishiki has a soft texture with a shine on each individual grain. When cooked, it has a glossy and wet finish. The stickiness, texture and sweetness are suitable for sushi. Hatsushimo has a slightly larger grain so it is a bit chewier and it can be stored for relatively long periods of time after harvesting without losing its flavor. Koshikari boasts the same features, but it can be firmer when produced in places with a large gap between cold and warm seasons, and the product from the same location can be different in flavor, smell and texture depending on the field. If you think about it, that is exactly what you would expect.
What is koshihikari?
Koshihikari is the most popular brand of rice in Japan, known for having delicious rice. The secret of koshihikari’s popularity is the delicious flavor that goes well with every type of food and its characteristics include a soft and stickiness, a sweetness, beautiful polish, rich fragrance, and it doesn’t harden easily after cooling.
Koshihikari was born 70 years ago in Niigata and Fukui prefectures. At the time, there was a food shortage in Japan and there was a need for products with high yields. However, koshihikari is tall, collapses easily, and is vulnerable to disease, so it wasn’t cultivated much at the beginning. However, researchers and farmers worked on cultivation methods, resulting in the ability to grow it in broad regions, and with the backing of the change in Japanese food culture, koshihikari became popular as ‘delicious rice’.
Nowadays koshihikari is grown all over Japan from Tohoku to southern Kyushu. The yield accounts for more than 1/3 of the entire rice industry, making it the most-made product in Japan. The most popular rice products are a combination of koshihikari and other varieties. Now with the Japanese food boom overseas, koshihikari is also cultivated in the U.S., Thailand, Italy and other countries.
The name comes from “koshi” which comes from the character “越” and is the first character of “Echizen (越前)”, the old name for Fukui prefecture and also the first character for “Echigo (越後)”, which is the old name for Niigata Prefecture. “Hikari” means “light” and apparently comes from the hope that the future of Niigata’s agriculture will “shine like a brilliant light”.
Unique know-how is crucial for each rice type
Further, rice is said to be the most delicious when it is fresh (for about 3 months after it has been harvested in September). But in some cases instead of fresh rice, rice that has been stored for over a year after harvesting is used intentionally. This is usually called “old rice,” but this doesn’t mean it has reduced quality. It will have been stored in a temperature and humidity-controlled warehouse, waiting until it is optimum to be used as sushi rice. Still, other sushi restaurants may favor a blend of multiple varieties or mix old and new rice.
What is a rice taste ranking?
The Japan Grain Inspection Association creates a rating based on taste tests conducted every year for the purpose of improving and popularizing Japanese rice. The rating is based on 6 aspects of cooked rice: exterior appearance, smell, taste, stickiness, hardness, and overall evaluation. A blend of rice including Koshihikari from multiple locations that year is used as a standard grain for comparison. The rice is given grades according to the overall evaluation. Superior rice is A+, good rice is A, rice that meets the quality of the standard grain is A’. Rice that is slightly worse than standard is B, and lower than that is B’. However, these are the tastes of the judges and taste is subjective, so what the judges believe is delicious and what is not is really just opinion.
What types of rice is preferred by sushi chefs?
In the end, the variety of rice is important, but assuming that quality also depends on its origin and producer, we asked what rice variety one well-known sushi restaurant used. Their invaluable responses were Hitomebore (A+), Tsuyahime (A+), Akitakomachi (A+), Koshihikari (A+), and Sasanishiki (A’). It is decent to consider brands like Koshihikari, Sasanishiki, and Tsuyahime are the best rice for sushi.
We’ve said this before, but in general, the best rice for nigiri sushi has very little stickiness and is made to be smooth and on the harder side so the vinegar blends in well and the rice comes apart, spreading through your mouth. Therefore, the light-flavored Sasanishiki is preferred due to being less sticky, as opposed to Koshihikari, which is sticky and has a stronger flavor. Strangely enough, however, while Koshihikari and Sasanishiki at opposite ends of the spectrum, they are both valued by sushi chefs. In other words, no matter what rice is used, the sushi chef has control. Methods for control include adjustments to water hardness, the amount of water, polishing time and cooking time.
Let’s take a deeper look at the following five types of rice.
Hitomebore was developed in Miyagi prefecture in 1981. This product was made by crossbreeding Koshihikari and Hatsuboshi, with the goal of developing a rice with excellent flavor and resistance to the cold. It became popular as an alternative rice to Sasanishiki when Sasanishiki suffered catastrophic damages due to cold weather damage and in 1994 it took the second place position to Koshihikari for acreage used for cultivation in Japan.
While it retains the taste and texture of Koshihikari, it doesn’t have the clear, strong flavor of Koshihikari and instead has a gentler flavor. However, it also doesn’t have the refreshing impression of Akitakomachi and Sasanishiki, but instead is considered to be a perfectly balanced rice. In other words, there is a lot of flexibility in deciding the flavor of sushi rice. Hitomebore is a very popular rice not only for general consumers but also for restaurants and other businesses. Hitomebore is used in places like Higashiazabu Amamoto (東麻布 天本) and others.
Tsuyahime was developed in Yamagata over about a 10-year period starting in 1998. It was born from its father, Tohoku No. 164, and mother, Yamagata No. 70. It is very popular for its delicious flavor, which is said to be even better than Koshihikari (the king of Japanese rice), and production outside of Yamagata Prefecture is also expanding.
Needless to say, the characteristics of that flavor include sweetness and umami, and the well-balanced taste from rice attributes like the texture in your mouth and stickiness. The content of umami components such as Glutamic acid and Aspartic acid is extremely high–even higher than Koshihikari, which is a synonym for delicious rice. Furthermore, the appealing appearance of the whiteness and luster of the cooked rice has an established reputation leading to it gaining popularity as a beautiful and delicious rice. On the other hand, because of this strong sweetness and stickiness, it is not suitable for dishes in which flavor is added to the rice such as fried rice and paella.
According to sushi chefs who use Tsuyahime, the umami of this rice is on another level. We’ve heard that even newly harvested rice may be used to maximize the umami. Another reason for the support could be that there is very little variation in rice kernel size. Tsuyahime is used by Sushi Yuu (鮨 由う), Takagaki-no-Sushi (高柿の鮨), Sushi Hashimoto (鮨 はしもと), Sushizen Ginza (すし善 銀座店), Kurosaki (くろ﨑), etc.
Sasanishiki is a rice developed in Miyagi Prefecture in 1963. Hatsunishiki and Sasashigure are its parents, and Koshihikari is a hereditary sibling breed. However, in recent years it has barely been ranked in cultivation acreage, dropping to only 1% of the rice farming space in all of Japan.
Since Japanese food inherently has many simple dishes with light flavors, a refreshing, elegant flavor like that of Sasanishiki, which doesn’t have a strong assertion in itself, but brings out the flavor of the dishes, is preferred. Sasanishiki has a low lipid content and is not sticky compared to Koshihikari, so as a sushi rice it comes apart easily in your mouth and it also has a nice aftertaste. Therefore, it continues to be used at high-quality Japanese restaurants and sushi restaurants even now, despite the decrease in production volume. On the other hand, since it is not as resistant to degradation and oxidation as Koshihikari is, the period of time it can be used after harvest is much shorter. Sasanishiki is used by Sushi Matsu and other restaurants.
Akitakomachi is a relatively long-standing variety and was developed in 1984. It is a cross between the Japanese rice king Koshihikari and Ou No. 292 and has inherited the good taste of Koshihikari.
It has a good flavor, stickiness, and a soft, sticky texture. It is said to be a perfect rice with the extremely balanced umami, sweetness, stickiness and chewiness. Another characteristic is that water content is higher than other rices so it is delicious not only freshly cooked, but also even after it cools. Also, the cross section of the grains of rice is pretty, creating a beautiful aesthetic when used in Nori-maki. Akitakomachi is used at restaurants such as Sushi Saito (鮨 さいとう), Jizou-sushi (地蔵鮓) and Sushi Fukumoto (鮨 福元).
Koshihikari is grown in 43 prefectures throughout the country, which is all prefectures except for Hokkaido, Aomori, Akita and Iwate. It has been over 60 years since it first came onto the scene in 1956, but it is still the top seller and accounts for 1/3 of the rice farming acreage in the country.
Its distinguishable characteristic is the delicious taste. The beauty of the freshly cooked luster, the strong stickiness, fragrance, etc., make this rice a synonym with “delicious”. The rice has such a strong sweetness that even the steam that rises from the hot rice has a sweet fragrance. The sweetness is especially strong when you bite into it. That’s why some have been active in developing new varieties that incorporate the delicious flavor of Koshihikari such as Akitakomachi, Haenuki, Hitomebore and Tsugaruroman.
Sushi chefs order Koshihikari, which is suitable for sushi rice from farmers in specific areas such as Niigata, Toyama, Ibaraki and Miyagi. Apparently long-stored rice with small, round kernels that has been sundried (dried naturally) is considered to be good. Compared with other varieties, there is very little degradation even after a long storage period and little oxidation in the fatty acids contained in the rice. Basically, sushi chefs like it because it can be used for a long period of time. Koshihikari is used at many sushi restaurants, including Kizushi (㐂寿司), Sawada (さわ田), Sushi Keita (鮨桂太), Sushi Arai (鮨 あらい), Sushi Hashimoto (鮨 はしもと), Harutaka (青空), Nishiazabu-Taku (西麻布 拓) , Sushi Mitsukawa (鮨みつ川), Otomezushi (乙女寿司) and Sushi Masashi (鮨 将司).
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