Japanese short grain rice (also known as ordinary rice or uruchimai 粳米) refers to a short-grain cultivar of Japonica rice that is characterized by its unique stickiness and texture. The kernels are plump and short in length. They also contain more moisture and are sticker than other types of rice.
Cultivated for thousands of years in Japan, Japanese rice is the quintessential staple of the Japanese diet. Most people outside of Japan may be most familiar with Japanese rice being used to make sushi and rice balls. However, Japanese rice is most commonly consumed as plain rice (also known as gohan) as part of ichiru sansai, a typical Japanese meal, or as part of bento boxes in Japan. It is sometimes cooked together with seasonal vegetables, seafood or meat and seasoned with dashi and soy sauce, and served as a one bowl rice dish. Some other products such as alcoholic drinks like sake and sochu, and rice vinegar are also made with ordinary Japanese rice.
This is, however, not to be confused with Japanese glutinous rice or mochigome, another short-grain cultivar of japonica rice. With a much more sticky texture, mochigome is used mainly for making mochi (rice cakes) and traditional sweets like sekihan and snacks like rice crackers.
What is Sushi Rice?
Outside of Japan, it is almost common to see ‘sushi rice’ being used as a label for Japanese short grain rice (uruchimai 粳米). Maybe people thought the Japanese eat only sushi, hence “sushi rice”? Or Japanese cuisine is known for sushi, so they label the ordinary Japanese rice as “sushi rice” out of convenience and for marketing purpose?
In actual fact, the Japanese would ONLY say “sushi rice“ when we are referring to sumeshi (vinegared rice) to make sushi. Sumeshi, or vinegared rice, is made with cooked Japanese short grain rice and seasoned with sushi vinegar, sugar, salt, and kombu. However, we do not eat vinegared sushi rice for regular meals.
You may also come across some recipes refer Japanese rice as ‘sushi rice’. In my recipes, I do not call Japanese rice as “sushi rice”. I make sushi rice for my sushi recipes with Japanese short grain rice.
Varieties of Japanese Rice
When comes to taste, Japanese rice is also being categorized by a few varieties which include Koshihikari, Akitakomachi and Sasanishiki. The Koshikikari variety is the preferred rice cultivated in Japan and very well-regarded. These varieties of rice used to be hard to find outside of Japan, but you can now find Koshihikari rice being grown in the US and Australia in the recent years. The drawback is they tend to be more expensive.
If the price is your concern, there is another variety of rice known as ‘Calrose’ rice that was developed and cultivated around 1950s in California by Japanese American producers. Although it is not considered true Japanese rice, Calrose is a medium grain Japonica that has been used by many Japanese-American restaurants since its introduction. Calrose grain is widely available and many people in the US use the rice for sushi.
Which Japanese Rice to Buy?
When buying Japanese rice, there are a few things to consider: freshness, sweetness, texture, stickiness, flavor, and place of production. For the best rice, you should look out for ‘shinmai‘ 新米. Literally means ‘new rice’, shinmai rice is the first crop of the season to be processed and packaged for sale in the same year in which it was harvested. Shinmai is best when served plain, or to make origiri rice balls.
When you visit a Japanese grocery store, you can ask for their recommendation for a good Japanese short grain rice and ask if the rice is ‘shinmai’. Sometimes the labels on the rice bags also indicate if it’s a ‘new crop’ or ‘新米’.
Best Brands of Japanese Short Grain Rice
Here are some of my favorites:
Koshihikari from Toyama Prefecture, Japan (you can find this brand at Japanese grocery stores)
Shirakiku Rice – Koshihikari from California
I also love Komachi, the finest California Supreme Short Grain Rice, from Far West Rice. You can read more about why I love this rice here. If you’re interested, you can contact the company to ask about where and how you can buy the rice.
Other Commonly Available Brands for Japanese Rice
If you couldn’t find the above-recommended brands of Japanese premium short grain rice, there are some other standard brands that are widely available in your local Asian or major grocery stores. Kokuho Rose and Nishiki are two Californian grown medium grain rice brands that you can buy at most places, and they are usually cheaper in price.
If freshness and flavor matter to you, you can look for Tamaki Gold and Tamanishiki Super Premium Short Grain Rice at your local Asian grocery stores. Tamaki Gold is California grown Koshikikari, while Tamanishiki is a California grown short grain rice that uses two kinds of premium short grain rice – Koshikikari and Yuma Gokochi. They are more expensive than Kukuho Rose and Nishiki.
Whichever brand of rice you decide to pick, you want to try to get the rice that is labeled ‘First Crop’ or ‘New Variety’. Different brands of rice have different flavors and textures. Whether it is for sushi-making or for a Japanese dish, once you try out a few rice brands and learn how to cook them properly, you will be able to discern which rice works best for you.
How Can I Substitute Japanese Rice?
Some people recommend arborio rice, the Italian short grain rice, as a substitute due to its similar sticky character. The long-grain Jasmine or basmati rice will not go well with Japanese meals. When you make rice balls and sushi, those types of rice don’t have enough moisture, and the rice will not stick together. If you have a Korean grocery store nearby, get Korean short grain rice. That would be a better substitute.
Storage for Japanese rice
To preserve the moisture and the freshness of the rice, buy the package size that can be finished by your household within a month or so. Store rice in a tightly sealed container away from direct sunlight, heat or humidity.