U.S. growers launch offensive to promote Calrose rice here

by Yuri Kageyama

The Associated Press

Creamy risotto in a fluffy seafood souffle and gelato sprinkled with crunchy topping were among the delicacies concocted by master chefs in a cooking contest in Tokyo for American rice — a product that is struggling to crack a nation notorious for protecting its rice farmers.

The California Rice Masters competition was part of a $1 million campaign kicked off by the USA Rice Federation, an organization of American rice growers and millers, to promote Calrose rice. Calrose is widely used in the U.S. but is entering the restaurant and retail market here as kernel rice for the first time in September.

The eight finalists, chosen among 250 entries, labored over their dishes on stage, a couple with trembling fingers, as judges, reporters and guests watched, and later taste-tested, in a hotel on Friday.

One contestant created futuristic sushi shaped like a cake and decorated with curly seaweed. Another wrapped rice mixed with stir-fried seaweed in paper-thin beef slices grilled on a griddle.

But even winner Masataka Suzuki, 36, a chef specializing in French food, who created the souffle, acknowledged he prefers eating Japanese rice, and struggled cooking Calrose, which he said isn’t as moist as Japanese rice.

“I tried to make it taste as close as I could to Japanese rice,” he said. “Consumers would probably like it if it’s cooked with a spoonful of butter.”

Over the years, American rice growers have developed Japanese-style short-grain rice to appeal to this market.

Demand for such rice has grown in the U.S. and elsewhere, thanks to the booming popularity of sushi, but the appetite for U.S. rice has stayed flat in Japan, according to the USA Rice Federation.

The group’s latest strategy is to switch to promoting Calrose medium-grain rice for soups, fried rice and other dishes, rather than compete directly against Japanese rice.

Japanese-style rice is usually cooked in plain water to be fluffy white in a bowl, and Japanese tend to be suspicious of foreign rice, stereotyping it as dry, tasteless and possibly unsafe.

“The tendency among consumers to favor Japanese rice is deeply rooted,” said Yasuo Sasaki, an official at the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry. “Japanese rice is stickier and has a special fluffy feel.”

Japan partially opened its rice market only in 1995, and the government still tightly controls the influx of foreign rice, keeping tariffs at 770 percent.

Most of the 770,000 tons of rice imported each year ends up as foreign aid, gets processed for crackers or sits in storage. Only a handful reaches consumers in restaurants and supermarkets.

Recently, American rice has been losing out to cheaper Chinese rice, tumbling in market share from 70 percent of Japan’s foreign rice a decade ago to 20 percent, according to the federation.

“If given a fair opportunity in the Japanese market, Calrose rice will be accepted and successful,” said USA Rice Federation official Christopher Crutchfield.

At first, 34 tons of Calrose rice will trickle into restaurants and import stores.

Calrose medium-grain rice, which is cheaper than American short-grain rice, sells for about $1 per 0.5 kg in the U.S. The Japan price is still undecided.

“It should be up to the consumer and not the government. That’s all we are asking. But with rice, it’s very, very difficult,” said Daniel Berman, a U.S. Embassy official overseeing agricultural affairs.

Yukio Hattori, a culinary expert and commentator on the “Iron Chef” TV show, said American rice stands up to the best in gourmet, especially for Chinese and Western cuisines, but isn’t as sweet as the most expensive Japanese rice.

“It lacks flavor when you chew it,” he said after judging the contest.

Housewife Sachiyo Fukutani, who had tried U.S. rice only once before, said she enjoyed American rice.

“This is light and easy to eat,” she said, spooning Suzuki’s risotto. “There’s a surprise element.”