Business / Corporate

Kumamoto company turns to brown rice paste in bid to revive Japan’s abandoned farmland

by Maya Kaneko

Staff Writer

Alarmed by an increase in abandoned rice paddies amid the Westernization of the Japanese diet and a graying population, a Kyushu dealer of major agricultural machinery-maker Kubota Corp. began producing rice flour in 2010 as an ingredient for bread and pasta to make up for declines in rice consumption.

After trial and error, the Kumamoto Prefecture-based company discovered that using paste instead of flour could be cost effective for bread and pasta production and turned its attention to brown rice, whose bran outer layer is rich with nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and fiber.

The layer is polished off in the production of white rice.

Consequently, brown rice paste was born.

“Many people know brown rice is healthy, but don’t make it a part of their diet because its cooking process is rather troublesome. Also, brown rice is harder to chew and digest than white rice,” said Tadahiko Nishiyama, president of NakakyushuKubota Co., which invented the paste.

Brown rice needs to be soaked in water for 12 hours before being cooked, but the paste allows consumers to skip this tedious process. Bread made from brown rice sold at Genkido, the company’s specialized bakery in Kumamoto, has attracted customers from inside and outside the prefecture since its opening in 2014, according to the operator of the bakery.

“The paste can be easily used and its particle size is as fine as starch, making the food made from it moist and doughy. It can also be used to make dressings and sauces,” Nishiyama explained in a recent interview.

In addition to the Kumamoto bakery, the company opened a new outlet in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward on June 14 by tying up with a Tokyo public relations agency. The restaurant, Genmai Genkido, features dishes made from the brown rice paste, including pasta, pancakes and canapes.

The new eatery targets health-conscious customers, especially those allergic or sensitive to wheat or proteins found in wheat, as its dishes are free of gluten, Nishiyama said.

“I liked the texture of the pasta. It was elastic,” said a female customer in her 30s who ate spaghetti Bolognese made from the brown rice paste on the restaurant’s opening day.

A 60-year-old woman, who had brown rice risotto, said, “I always had the impression that brown rice was hard to chew, but today’s rice was not.”

Genmai Genkido aims to serve only high-purity brown rice products and offers bread wholly made from the grain, as it strives to become a restaurant known for gluten-free dishes.

Gluten-free diets have been slowly gaining awareness in Japan, after former World No. 1 tennis player Novak Djokovic, who used to be sponsored by Uniqlo, revealed in his 2013 book that going gluten-free transformed his health and pushed him to the sport’s pinnacle.

Technically speaking, processing brown rice into paste has advantages compared with making rice flour from the grain, as the simpler process mitigates damage to the product and reduces production costs, according to Nishiyama.

When brown rice powder is made, bran containing fatty and sugar content tends to stick to milling machines. The powder also oxidizes quickly, making it tougher to keep for long periods of time.

But when brown rice, including the bran it contains, is made into paste, it doesn’t stick to machines. The product can then be frozen and kept for up to six months, meaning it can be conveniently shipped and widely distributed.

“We learned (brown) rice flour has limitations, so we started the business of baking bread with brown rice paste, following the advice of a former farm ministry bureaucrat,” Nishiyama said.

In financial terms, producing brown rice paste costs about the same as making rice flour, but the company hopes its promotion of the new foodstuff results in higher demand for the paste and eventually lower production costs.

The Kumamoto company was eager to curb the decline in rice consumption with its invention, especially after 2011 government data showed annual spending on bread in households of two or more people exceeded that of rice for the first time in Japan.

“About 7 million tons of rice are produced yearly in Japan, while the country imports some 5 million tons of wheat for production of bread, pasta and other food items,” Nishiyama said. “If only 1 million tons of that wheat can be switched to rice, half of some 420,000 hectares of abandoned arable land in the country can be revived.”

According to 2015 government statistics, Japan had 423,000 hectares of deserted farmland, an area roughly the size of Ishikawa Prefecture.

The company has been procuring rice grown by Kumamoto farmers with limited use of pesticides and processing it to a paste at a factory in the prefecture. It also sells brown rice paste wholesale to companies in the food industry and has promoted brown rice pasta at a food event in Singapore.

Although its factory was completed shortly before two major earthquakes hit Kumamoto in April 2016, it could not operate fully for about six months following the disaster.

“If the Tokyo restaurant proves successful, we’d like to further increase food outlets that use brown rice paste and recover the ‘golden harvest’ of rice in local farming villages,” Nishiyama said.