The World’s Best Rice comes in a sturdy, gold-embossed box with six small packages inside. It costs 10,000 for 840 grammes, which is about $95 for less than 2 pounds. That’s almost 30 times more than what you’d pay at a supermarket in Japan. When the Guinness World Records looked at rice prices in 2016, they found that it was the most expensive on Earth. In November, the International Contest on Rice Taste Evaluation, Japan’s most prestigious rice competition, is held. Toyo Rice Corporation blends together several of the best-tasting finalists chosen by the judges in a blind taste test. The company sells the product to wealthy customers in Japan, the US, and Singapore. Milling the kernels removes the tawny outer bran, but not the umami layer that surrounds the starchy core. The winning batches are kept in temperature-controlled rooms for at least six months before they are milled. Toyo Rice says that the price is fair because you can’t find better-tasting short-grain white rice anywhere else.
This is all if you think that rice has a unique taste that changes a lot from farm to farm and grain to grain. As a marketing ploy, you might think the World’s Best Rice isn’t worth it. Toyo Rice only makes about a few hundred boxes of rice a year. If you want to rate and rank different batches of plain white rice, like single-origin coffee or grower Champagne in Japan, you can trust your palate to do the job. People who are “rice sommeliers” write about the different types of rice that are best for eating for breakfast with fermented soybeans and seaweed, or for making fried rice for dinner. There aren’t any shortages of printed pages and radio and TV time dedicated to this kind of detailed discussion. In addition, shopkeepers who have been certified as “five-star rice meisters” show off their skills with their own in-house blends and taste charts.
I ate a lot of rice when I was growing up in California. I bought 20-pound bags of Calrose rice at a Japanese grocery store in San Diego’s Convoy District. In the mid-1960s, my mother moved from Japan to the U.S. and married my father, who was born in Japan. She made this dish for our family every night. This is how I came to believe that rice was the key to its versatility: because it was so boring, it could go with almost anything. That changed a lot when I moved to Japan two decades ago. I soon heard people talk about how rice was “sweet.” How the rice felt as it went down the back of the throat, or “nodogoshi.” I didn’t know about this. Is there something else going on that I didn’t notice?
The International Contest on Rice Taste Evaluation, the national competition that decides what goes into the World’s Best Rice, was set up to reward farmers who do a good job.
For anyone who wants to find out, there are a lot of things to try. Some of the short-grain japonica rice in Japan is called Yume Shizuku (Dream Droplet), Seiten no Hekireki (Bolt from the Blue), Tsuyahime (Shiny Princess), Mirukii Kuiin, or Tsuyahime (Shiny Princess) (Milky Queen). Stickiness, starch density, big kernels, early maturation, heat resistance, and pest resistance are just a few of the traits that plant breeders have grown for. Each one is a unique cultivar. There are some plants that can only grow in the warm subtropical areas of the southwest, but there are also plants that can grow in the cold northern climate of Hokkaido.
Toyozo Nishijima, the owner of Suzunobu, a rice shop in western Tokyo, says that small differences in traits could make one rice perfect for a spicy curry and another better for grilled fish, like fish that is grilled. There are more people who like to try new foods, and rice isn’t just a staple for them. There is one customer who buys a one-kilogram bag of Yukiwakamaru from Yamagata prefecture and a two-kilogram bag of Sasanishiki from Miyagi prefecture every time he comes in. That harvest was a few weeks ago. The more she buys, the less fresh it will be when she eats it. She won’t be able to finish it in time. “She gets a little of this and that, but in a week, she’ll be back to try something else,” says the man.
Comparison: When you compare rice to a single control pile, you notice that there are some small differences: discoloured kernels, a faint hint of popcorn, and a swollen, hard feeling to the rice. Kobayashi’s team came up with the name Ichihomare, which is a cultivar that was released in 2017 and has been getting a lot of attention in specialty stores in Tokyo. “If you go to tastings every day, you become very aware of the subtleties,” says Kobayashi, who has been in the field for more than two decades and has tried many rice varieties. Then again, it’s weird to eat rice alone. I can’t help but wonder if sauce-smothered tonkatsu would be any different from sauce-free tonkatsu.
3,000 years ago, rice, the seed of a grass, was brought to Japan from China. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that Japan started breeding the grain to make it better. There was a lot of excitement when the first rice cultivar, Riku-u 132, came out in 1921. Back then, the government kept a close eye on rice, and it set a goal of growing plants that could feed a growing population. In 1971, the government cut back on rice production because there were more harvests and less people eating it. That’s when farmers started focusing on quality instead of quantity, thanks to a grain inspection group’s new annual list of grades for brands grown in different parts of the country. The government opened the market to competition in 1995, which finally allowed people to get their hands on the country’s huge variety of rice. This also led to a flood of new brands being marketed to a new generation of rice lovers, who were willing to pay as much as $45 for a five-kilogram (11-pound) bag.
When I was growing up in Japan, the average person ate 118 pounds of rice every year. People in the United States eat about a fifth of the it’s less than half of what they ate per person in 1962. Diversifying diets and trendy low-carb regimens are part of the reason why so many people are getting sick. Now, Japanese policymakers are worried about “kome-banare,” which is a collective distancing from the grain, and what it’s doing to the country’s low food self-sufficiency rate and the country’s farming sector. If you think about rice like a good Bordeaux, it’s not hard to see why government and industry officials want people to think of it as more than just a food.
There are about 800 rice cultivars that have come out of Japanese labs, but the one that people like the most is called Koshihikari by them. It came out in 1956, and it has sold more than any other brand for years. Koshihikari is now grown in all but a few of the country’s 47 prefectures, has the highest average prices, and makes up a third of the rice that’s grown each year. For oyakodon or gohan with matsutake, Koshihikari comes close. If you just want to eat it with pickles and nothing else, it’s not bad. In surveys, people say they like its ultrawhite kernels, soft chewiness, and mild sweetness.
Some of the things that make Koshihikari’s texture and flavour so good are known, like how amylose, a type of starch, and certain proteins make it sticky and hard, for example. But there are many things we don’t know. Fukui Agricultural Experiment Station breeders are now working on new varieties that have all the things that people love about Koshihikari but will also be low-calorie, high-fiber, cheaper to grow, and able to grow in hot weather.
Putting a brand on rice has made it more appealing, and even trendy, to eat. Chiho Kashiwagi, a food writer who writes for Forbes Japan and Cookpad News, says that people often think of brands as having certain traits. The truth is a lot more complicated. Small changes in soil, weather, water, and topography can make a difference, and knowing how to make these work takes practise. It’s better to choose farmers, not brands, says Kashiwagi, who lives with her family on a 54-acre rice farm in the mountainous area of Fukushima prefecture where she grows rice with her husband and two sons.
People who take part in rice contests can help with that. Hideyuki Suzuki, the chairman of the organising committee, says that the International Contest on Rice Taste Evaluation, the national competition that decides what goes into the World’s Best Rice, was set up to reward farmers who do a good job. They taste 42 batches of rice, the best from a field of 5,000. It takes 50 minutes for the rice to cool after it’s done cooking. It should be around 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) when the judges try it, says Suzuki, who runs the Rice Taste Appraisers’ Association in Osaka, which trains and certifies the judges. This is ideal for enjoying the taste. “It’s hard for the judges because every finalist that has made it this far is a great person.”
Suzuki’s comment about temperature is in the back of my mind when I make The World’s Best Rice for dinner one night at home. It says to soak the kernels for an hour and cook the rice in a clay pot on the stove. The next time it’s done, I think about waiting for it to cool down, but I don’t. Instead, I start right away. I think it smells like wet trees in the fall. It’s very sticky and hard. Umami isn’t what the packaging says it is. The fact that there isn’t a taste that’s in your face makes me feel better about the food. Rice isn’t enough for me to finish, so I eat a few mouthfuls of a miso pork stir-fry and lotus root. Rice isn’t the star of the meal, but it was never meant to be, either. It’s there, extending and balancing out the flavours and textures of everything else, quietly making the food better.
There is a limited amount of time that Toyo Rice sells the World’s Best Rice from its online shop in Japan. It starts in June.
The English version of the company’s website, which is aimed at customers in Singapore and Hong Kong, talks about how the rice is chosen, how it is aged, and how it is ground.
In the United States, The World’s Best Rice is not for sale. If you want to buy Toyo Rice’s Kinmemai brown and white rice, you can only buy them at Japanese grocery stores in California, Hawaii, and Connecticut, though.