Japanese rice, grown in Europe or the United States
While it is possible to substitute other types of rice for Japanese rice (see: Looking at rice) sometimes a Japanese dish just isn't right unless you use Japanese-type or japonica rice. Whenever I write about Japanese rice, I always get asked about the best brands to get, whether rice grown in Japan is worth the extra cost, and so on. Here's what I recommend, depending on where you live.
Please note I only have info for Europe and North America I'm afraid. I'm not familiar with what's available in Australia/New Zealand for example. Maybe you can share that info in the comments!
Some notes to start
When I say japonica rice, I mean a short to medium grain rice that cooks up to be slightly sticky. It is the rice to use for sushi, and most Japanese recipe.
Koshihikari, Sasanishiki and Akitakomachi are varieties of japonica rice. There are hundreds of named varieties in Japan, but these 3 are the bestsellers in Japan. A variety called Yumegokochi is also mentioned as the variety for one of the rice brands below.
Any rice, whatever the quality, must be cooked properly. See my very detailed instructions for how to prep and cook Japanese-style rice here.
Japonica rice in the UK/Europe
In years past, the only choices we had for japonica rice in Europe were imported, either from Japan or from the U.S. Happily this situation has changed in the past few years. There are now japonica type rice grown in Spain and Italy, under the supervision of Japanese food companies - mainly by Japan Food Corporation International (JFC), a major food import/exporter and distributor.
I've tried most of the Spanish or Italian grown japonica rice types, and my favorite is a brand called Yume-Nishiki. It's Koshihikari type rice grown in northern Italy, and is distributed by JFC. Yume-Nishiki is now the standard rice we get.
I like Yume-Nishiki for the following reasons:
- It tastes just as good as most Japan-grown rice brands. Even my mother approves of it, and declared that she doesn't feel the need to ship rice to me anymore. (OK that's my loss ... ^_^;)
- It's fairly reasonably priced for japonica rice. It's anywhere from 2/3 to 1/2 of the cost of rice imported from Japan, and it's also cheaper than most of the U.S. grown rice brands except for Nishiki - but it's a grade higher than Nishiki in quality.
- It's available as both white and brown rice.
- It's grown in Europe, so it's not coming from the other side of the globe.
JFC does carry other European grown rice types like Haruka and Megumi, but both are more expensive than Yume-Nishiki and I don't see any quality difference to be honest. Plus, I have never seen brown rice of either variety being sold. You can read more about Yume-Nishiki on the JFC site.
Incidentally, there are several local types of rice available from both Italy and Spain, as well as France that can be used in Japanese recipes. Paella rice for example can be cooked in the Japanese way and used in Japanese dishes. See Looking at rice again for some Italian-type rice suggestions. In France, look for riz rond du Sud, from Taureau Ailé. (I refuse to link to their site because it sucks.)
A great deal if you're in the UK/Europe!
Japan Centre in London, who has been a long time supporter of JustHungry and JustBento, has a special coupon code for JH/JB readers that will give you 20% off a mailorder purchase until October 31st. Click here or on the Japan Centre banner ad on the sidebar for details! (Restrictions apply, but you can surely use the coupon code for rice!)
Japonica and japonica-hybrid rice in North America
Japonica rice and japonica-hybrid (crossed with another variety) has been grown for a few decades already in the United States. California is the biggest grower, but there's some rice grown in Arkansas and Texas also. The market is mature enough to support different levels of quality of Japanese-style rice.
Japonica-hybrid type rices
The grains of this type are bit longer than true japonica rice but can be used in the same way for sushi and other Japanese dishes.
Calrose may be the most widely available, and least expensive, japonica-hybrid type of rice available in North America. Personally I'd only get this if I was on a very tight budget, but you may find it acceptable. Some background on Calrose. I recommend giving it some extra rinsing and soaking time.
Nishiki is grown under the supervision of JFC in California. It's one grade lower than the brands mentioned below, but quite acceptable unless you are very picky about your rice. The JFC site has more info, but doesn't mention what variety it is. It's available in small to gigantic bags, and as white or brown rice.
Kokuho Rose was developed by Koda Farms in California. It is pretty similar to Nishiki in terms of quality and so forth, and is also available in small to humongous packs, and as white or brown rice.
Japonica 'premium' rices
When I lived in the U.S., my rice of choice (unless I was broke) was Tamanishiki. It too is grown under the supervision of JFC, and is a hybrid of Koshihikari and Yumegokochi varieties. It's just about as good as any Japan-grown Japanese rice with the exception of some super-special types. It's also the rice the sushi restaurant my mom ran in NYC used. More on the JFC site.
Tamaki rice, grown by the Tamaki Corporation, is another California rice. The variety is Koshihikari again, and it's on par with Tamanishiki. It was my other go-to rice when I was not broke when I lived in New York. More on their website.
There are some other types of 'premium' or 'super premium' rice types available, such as Nagomi, Megumi, etc., but the above two are my favorites.
So is it ever worth it to pay a steep premium for rice grown in Japan?
This is a a difficult question really. If you are really picky about your rice, or insist on a certain variety of rice that isn't available from domestic growers, then it could be worth it. From the listings above you can see that the 'premium' type rices are all Koshihikari based. Koshihikari is a rice with a strong stickiness, which a lot of people prefer, but some prefer the less sticky and rather light tasting Sasanishiki. Akitakomomachi is even more sticky than Koshihikari, and fans swear it has more umami too. But to be honest, I don't think most people can tell the difference that well.
If you can get a hold of new harvest rice, wherever it comes from, it may be worth paying a premium for it. See my ode to new harvest rice (shinmai) that I wrote a while back for The Japan Times.