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Shinmai, an official term designated by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in the Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS) system, is the rice harvested, processed and packaged for sale in the current year, up until December 31.

Rice from the previous calendar year is designated as komai, old rice; still older rice is called kokomai (old old rice), kokokomai (old old old rice) and so on with the number of ko (meaning old) corresponding to the rice’s age in years.

While the rice harvest starts as early as July in the south, in the major rice-producing regions such as Niigata, Hokkaido and Akita prefectures, the current year’s crop is available in September and October, making this the best season for shinmai fans.

The main characteristic that distinguishes shinmai from komai is the amount of moisture in the grains. Newly harvested rice has 3 to 20 percent more moisture than older rice, depending on the drying method used, the age of the rice and storage conditions.

Shinmai grains are more porous than aged rice, so that when it’s cooked it has a more glutinous, sticky and plump texture. And it has a fresher, cleaner taste and is subtly sweeter than older rice.

The yearly celebration of shinmai also fits into the general Japanese propensity for pursuing freshness and seasonality in food and drink, from new harvest tea (shincha) to newly brewed sake. It explains why the yearly release of Beaujolais Nouveau became such a national craze in the 1980s when it was first introduced in Japan, and has continued to be a successful yearly event, though it has declined in popularity in recently years.

Shinmai was not always preferred over komai. In the Muromachi Period (1392-1573), older rice was prized more highly, simply because its lack of moisture meant that the uncooked rice seemed to increase more in volume when it was cooked with added water than new harvest rice, an important consideration in the days when famines caused by poor harvests were frequent.

Better farming techniques, not to mention a long period of peace, led to an increasing appreciation for shinmai in the Edo Period (1603-1868), but it was an expensive commodity reserved for the wealthy. Shinmai only became widely available to the general public in the 1950s.

Nowadays, the arrival of shinmai is heavily marketed around the country. (Incidentally the word shinmai, written with the same kanji characters, also means a rookie or newbie, such as a shinmai shain, a first-year company employee.)

Even though shinmai is highly prized these days, it’s not always the best rice to use because of its high moisture content. Komai is preferred for sushi rice for instance as it absorbs the vinegar sauce better. Some sushi chefs blend old and new rice to combine the best traits of each. Older, drier rice is also better for making fried rice and most other rice dishes that have been introduced to Japan from other cuisines, especially ones that originally used long grain rice.

To truly appreciate the subtle qualities of shinmai, eat it as plainly as possible. Try it on its own or with just a sprinkling of gomashio (sesame salt). If that’s too austere, perhaps have a single umeboshi (salt-preserved plum) or a dish of pickled vegetables on the side. But my favorite way to enjoy shinmai is as shio musubi, a rice ball seasoned with salt only.

New-harvest rice at its best: A shio musubi (salted rice ball) made with shinmai rice.
New-harvest rice at its best: A shio musubi (salted rice ball) made with shinmai rice. | MAKIKO ITOH

Streamed shinmai (new-harvest rice) and shio musubi (salted rice balls)

Ingredients (serves 4 to 5, or makes 3 to 4 rice balls)

• 360 milliliters (2 rice-cooker cups, or 2 ) uncooked new harvest shinmai rice

• 360 milliliters water, plus additional water for rinsing and soaking

For the rice balls:

• Salt

• Toasted nori seaweed

Preparation

Fill a large bowl with water. Add the rice to the water, stir rapidly a few times and drain immediately into a fine-mesh sieve.

Fill the bowl with clean water again and re-add the rice. Stir rapidly and drain. Repeat 3 or 4 times, and then drain the rice into the sieve.

If using a heavy cast iron pot or earthenware pot (donabe): Add the rice and 360 milliliters (the same amount by volume) of water to the pot. Cover and leave to soak for at least 30 minutes, preferably an hour.

Turn on the heat to medium, and cook until the water is boiling. Turn the heat down as low as possible and cook for an additional 13 minutes, using a timer.

Turn the heat up for about 90 seconds until you hear crackling noises coming from the pot, to cook off any extra moisture.

Turn off the heat, and leave the pot without opening the lid for another 15 to 20 minutes. Fluff up the rice with a paddle and serve. If using a rice cooker, follow its instructions.

To make the rice balls:

Divide the rice into 3 to 4 portions. Wet your palms and rub them with a generous pinch of salt.

Take a portion of warm rice and gently form a round or triangular ball. The key is to not squeeze the rice too hard — the rice will stick together fine. Wrap a strip of nori seaweed around each ball.

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