For most Westerners, rice is just a vehicle for other flavours. But in Japan it’s a very different story, says Kenji Hall in Taste magazine. Connoisseurs pore over different strains as if it’s single-origin coffee or champagne. In newspapers “rice sommeliers” tell readers which types work best with different meals. Shopkeepers certified as “five-star rice meisters” show off their skills with “special in-house blends and taste charts”.
The crème de la crème are decided at the prestigious International Contest on Rice Taste Evaluation, which is usually held in Japan. The initial 5,000 entries are whittled down to 42 finalists. Each batch is cooked and allowed to cool for “exactly 50 minutes” – 40 degrees Celsius is the “optimal” temperature. Then judges carry out a blind taste test.
Some of the winning batches are intricately blended into what is (heavily) marketed as “The World’s Best Rice”. Packaged in a “sturdy, gold-embossed box”, it sells for an eye-watering £35/lb. Only a few hundred boxes are produced each year – and I managed to get my hands on one, says Hall. Sticky, firm, and “with a smell that reminds me of wet trees in autumn”, it didn’t blow me away. “But it was never meant to.” Rice isn’t supposed to be the star of the show – it’s “just there, extending and balancing out the flavours and textures of everything else, surreptitiously elevating the cuisine”.
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