Do Japanese Eat Brown Rice? Rice History & Culture in Japan

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Woman eating with noodles, brown rice, sushi on the table with a text "Do Japanese Eat Brown Rice"

Rice is an integral part of Japanese culture and history. Many Japanese people will eat rice three times a day! However, do Japanese eat brown rice? You may be shocked to learn that, unlike people from the Western world, brown rice isn’t their go-to rice of choice.

So, why do most Japanese people prefer white rice? Let’s dive into the historical reasons behind Japan’s rice habits. Plus, we’ll address the question we’re all thinking about: how do Japanese people stay so thin while eating so much rice?

Some Japanese people choose brown rice as a healthy food option because of Western influence, but you’ll mostly see them enjoying a bowl of white sticky rice with their meals. Back “in the day,” brown rice was the primary grain, while only aristocrats ate white rice. So, what changed?

History & Culture of Rice in Japan

Experts believe rice cultivation in Japan began in the Jōmon period, about 6000 years ago, but it may have been even earlier. Did you know that rice naturally grows in forest clearings? Some populations may have cultivated rice in natural settings long before it was adapted to grow as rice does today.

Over the centuries, people adapted the crop to grow in shallow fields and mountains. This rice cultivation technique, called “paddy agriculture,” allows cultivators to produce significantly more yields per acre of land.

Wavy rice fields in Wakayama, Japan.

Because rice was cheap and filling, it soon became the staple of the Japanese diet. Since then, rice has filled people’s stomachs across Japan, increasing the country’s population—no wonder this beloved grain plays such a significant role in Japanese culture.

Rice as a Currency

Around the 7th century, rice became a currency like gold or silver. The lower classes used rice to pay lords, while lords used the crop to pay samurais. They also measured the value of land in rice.

Is Rice More Important Than Love?

In Japanese, there are more words for rice than for “love.” Even the Japanese word for cooked rice (gohan) has become synonymous with the general meaning of “meal,” showing how much they appreciate this nutritious grain.

When Did White Rice Become the Norm in Japanese Cuisine?

Until the 19th century, brown rice was a staple food for Japanese cuisine because it was easier to produce than white rice. Before industrialization, it was difficult and expensive to turn brown rice into white rice, called polishing. So, the more costly white rice was reserved for the elite, while cheaper brown rice was the main sustenance of the common folk.

All that changed after the rice polisher entered the market. Since then, people of all classes could finally enjoy white Japanese rice, also known as Japonica rice. White rice is commonly the star of Japanese breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Find out more about how rice is processed here.

How Do Japanese People Stay So Thin While Eating So Much Rice?

Japan enjoys much lower rates of obesity than many Western countries, but it isn’t just because they eat a lot of rice. First, Japanese portions are significantly smaller on average than American portions. One serving of rice is typically 119 grams which is only 130 calories. Japanese households usually don’t add salt or butter to rice, as Americans often do, cutting the calories even further. So, even if the average Japanese person eats three servings of rice daily, it’s not nearly as many calories as someone in the US with the same dietary habit.

Another reason Japan has lower obesity rates is because Japanese people walk a lot. Densely populated cities such as Tokyo and Osaka have highly developed public transportation systems and are very walkable. Whether it’s going to work, the grocery store, or out for dinner, people often walk instead of taking their car.

Lastly, Japanese meals are well-balanced, with plenty of nutritious side dishes. They call these side dishes okazu, which translates to “side dish to accompany rice.” These include vegetables, fish, seafood, soybeans, soup, and fermented foods.

Yummy Japanese food, basic Japanese grub.

FAQs About Rice (& Japanese Rice)

Read on for answers to a few frequently asked questions about Japanese rice.

What kind of rice do the Japanese eat?

All Japanese rice is short-grain rice. The two most popular types of rice are ordinary rice (uruchimai) and glutinous rice (mochigome). Ordinary rice is what we in the Western world call sushi rice. The Japanese also use this kind of rice to make sake, known as Japanese rice wine.

Glutinous rice, which Westerners call sticky rice or sweet rice, is much stickier than uruchimai. This type of rice is essential for making mochi (savory sticky rice), ohagi (sweet rice balls), and many other specialty dishes.

You can also find brown rice in Japan, but many Japanese people prefer the flavor and texture of white rice. Another variation is multi-grain rice which has added grains for extra nutrition.

One particularly curious Japanese rice variety is haiga-mai rice, which straddles the middle ground between white and brown rice in terms of flavor. It’s slightly nutty and chewy like brown rice but tastes more similar to white rice. Haiga-mai rice is partially polished; the bran is removed during processing, but the germ is left intact. This method means the rice still has all the prized nutritional benefits of rice germ, like vitamins E and B, niacin, calcium, plus more fiber! As a result, haiga-mai rice has more nutritional value than white rice, though not as much as brown rice.

Why does Japanese rice taste so good?

Rice from Japan has a unique flavor that differs from other varieties. The way Japanese rice is grown and milled makes it sweeter. This fantastic flavor is thanks to Japan’s considerable difference in temperature between day and night and their high-quality production standards.

Japanese rice is also stickier than other types of rice, which gives it a chewier texture. When you chew rice, your saliva releases an enzyme that makes the starch taste sweeter. So, the chewier the rice, the sweeter it tastes.

How do Japanese eat rice with chopsticks?

If you’ve only tried long-grain rice, you may have thought: how could anyone eat this with chopsticks? Japanese rice is short grain and a lot stickier, which means it clumps into manageable pieces that are much easier to pick up with chopsticks.

Do any cultures eat brown rice?

Americans aren’t the only ones who are crazy about brown rice. Indian, Spanish, Middle Eastern, and global fusion cuisines use a lot of brown rice. Two-thirds of the world’s population eat white rice as a staple food.

What is the best way to cook brown rice?

Here is a foolproof way to cook brown rice that you’ll want to save for later. Use a 1:2 water-to-rice ratio or increase the liquid to 1:2 ½, depending on how tender you like it.

According to Aki from Samurai Matcha, you should cook brown rice on medium-high heat for 20 minutes (on an electric stove) or 15 minutes on a gas stove. Then, turn the heat off and let it sit for another 20 minutes. Fluff and serve.

Note: Aki’s method works best in clay or heavy-bottomed stainless-steel pots since they retain more heat. Also, unless you’re using an organic brand, wash the brown rice for the best results.

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