Not all white rice tastes the same

Now is the best time to enjoy shinmai , Japan's highly regarded new-harvest rice

by Makiko Itoh

In Japan, the freshness and seasonality of ingredients used in cooking is of paramount importance. Even in this age of mass production and imported foods, people still care about the appearance of fresh bamboo shoots in spring, or the first matsutake mushrooms in fall.

One of the most treasured “fresh” ingredients is shinmai (new-harvest rice). According to the Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS) rules set by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), rice can only be labeled and sold as shinmai if it has been processed and packaged for sale in the same year in which it was harvested. And although genmai (brown rice) is increasing in popularity for health reasons, shinmai, to most Japanese people, refers to polished, gleaming white rice.

Incidentally, the word “shinmai” also means “newbie” or beginner. A shinmai mama is a new, first-time mother, and a shinmai shain is a brand new first-year company employee.

Shinmai usually starts to appear in stores in Japan in early fall, and is available until the end of the year. Though there have been reports of a reduced quality of rice in Japan this year due to the record-breaking hot summer, shinmai is still available and delicious, much to the relief of rice lovers throughout the country.

The difference between shinmai and other rice is subtle, but once tried and compared to komai (old rice), it is easy to tell the difference. Shinmai grain contains more moisture than older rice, and though some other rice-based cultures favor dry, even aged rice, in Japan, plump and moist rice indicates freshness and is more delicious. New- harvest rice is so highly regarded in Japan, it’s definitely something you should experience if visiting the country in the fall; especially since it is not widely marketed abroad.

The best way to savor shinmai is to serve it as unadorned as possible. A plain bowl of steaming hot shinmai, topped with an umeboshi plum, some gomashio (sesame salt) or even just a sprinkle of sea salt is delicious. For on the go, though, an equally delicious way to enjoy shinmai is to make rice balls, known as onigiri or omusubi.

Freshly cooked plain rice portions, pressed gently together with only salt on the surface as seasoning, are called shio-musubi — literally “salty rice balls.” During Japan’s feudal times, these were often the packed lunches of foot soldiers on war campaigns or travelers along the old Tokaido road linking Edo (present-day Tokyo) and Kyoto. I have fond memories as a little girl, of watching my mother and aunts preparing for family gatherings by making lots and lots of onigiri in my grandfather’s old wooden ohistsu (rice bucket), their hands red from the hot rice and salt.

Onigiri are sold everywhere in Japan, and are thought of as the ideal energy snack for hikers, energetic kids and students studying late into the night. But once you’ve tasted some made with freshly cooked shinmai, you’ll likely have a hard time going back to the kind you can buy in a convenience store.

Since shinmai is rather expensive, you’ll want to treat it with care. Here are instructions for storing and cooking it, as well as how to prepare rice to make either plain rice balls or shio-musubi.

Buying and storing shinmai

To preserve the moisture content and fresh flavor, try to buy, at most, only as much as your household will be eating within a month or so. Store it in a cool, dry place. Some people store their shinmai in the refrigerator or freezer. If you do this, make sure that the rice is put into an airtight containers.

Preparation and cooking

Shinmai grains are delicate, so when washing them, do it gently and in several changes of water. Make sure you drain off the water quickly so that the white surface coating you are cleaning off doesn’t get absorbed into the grains. Let the washed rice drain for at least half an hour in a fine-mesh sieve before cooking.

Because of its moisture content, less water is needed to cook shinmai. If using a rice cooker, use a bit less than you usually do for regular rice. For example, if you’re making three cups of rice (using the cup provided with your cooker), add water up to about the 2.9 to 2.8 level in the cooker bowl, instead of the usual three. (If you’re turning cooked shinmai into sushi rice, use the lesser amount — for example 2.8 cups for three cups of rice — to allow the rice to absorb the vinegar and flavorings properly.)

Let the drained rice soak for at least half an hour in fresh water before cooking. (Note: most modern rice cookers already add this soaking time to their “regular” cooking cycles). After the rice is cooked, fluff it up with a rice paddle.

To cook shinmai in a pot, use a 1:1 rice to water ratio or a bit less. Soak the rinsed and drained rice for 30 minutes in fresh water. Bring the pot of rice up to a boil on high heat, then turn the heat down to low and put on a tight-fitting lid. Cook until all the water has been absorbed by the rice and you see an even spread of small steam holes across the surface. Then turn the heat up to high for a couple of minutes to evaporate any remaining water in the pot.

Let the rice rest for five to 10 minutes, then fluff up with a rice paddle.

After cooking shinmai using either method, if you have a wooden ohitsu, transfer the rice to it while still hot.

Store any leftover shinmai, well wrapped in plastic wrap, in the freezer.

Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha International), now available in Japan (from January in the United States). She writes about bento lunches on justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more on justhungry.com.

Making shinmai shio-musubi (salty new-harvest rice balls)

Makes 3 medium-sized rice balls Freshly cooked hot shinmai rice — 3 cups Sea salt Nori seaweed — 3 sheets (optional) To make onigiri or omusubi (rice balls) successfully, the rice must be hot. Cold leftover rice will not stick together properly. Freshly cooked rice works best, but you can use cooked rice that has been stored in freezer as long as it is heated in a microwave first.

Divide the rice into three portions with a rice paddle. Put one portion into a rice bowl. This allows the rice to cool down just enough so that you can handle it without burning your palms.

Moisten your clean hands with plain water and smear a generous amount of salt on the palms. Turn the rice from the bowl out onto one palm. Press the rice gently into a ball with both hands, turning the ball frequently. You can form it into a triangle, ball or flat disc shape.

Wrap a piece of nori seaweed around each rice ball.

Serve as part of a bento box or picnic meal, or just on their own.

If you want to fill the rice balls, I recommend sticking with classic fillings such as umeboshi plum or shiozake (grilled salted salmon) for shinmai onigiri.

Use about one teaspoon of filling per ball. While it is still in the rice bowl, poke a hole into the rice with your finger. Then put the filling into the hole. Use a bit less salt on your palms than with shio-musubi. Press the rice around the filling, taking care that the filling stays in the middle. Wrap with nori seaweed.