There are some 300 varieties of Japanese rice, in a variety of sizes and textures. What westerners tend to think of here is associated with sushi and chirashi (a rice bowl topped with raw fish), and while it may seem like a basic entry-level type option, Japanese sushi rice all by itself can be incredibly versatile.
Sushi rice is a short-grain variety that tends to be starchier than other types of rice, which is what makes it great for sushi rolls, rice balls, and other dishes that require a sticky rice base. When you eat sushi, one of the reasons it tastes so good is that sugar, salt, and vinegar have been added to the rice to enhance its flavor and make it even stickier.
Those added ingredients are only the start; there are plenty of toppings, condiments, and seasonings you can use with sushi rice to expand your repertoire. Rice may be the base, but a great foundation is required to build a great house.
Japanese Rice 101: The Rice Itself
The host of Hot Thai Kitchen, Pailin Chongchitnant, advises her viewers to purchase staple ingredients such as chili paste, curry paste, and fish sauce that is made in Thailand for best results in making Thai dishes at home.
For cooking Japanese rice, the same notion often applies. Some feel you may do best with rice sold by Japanese companies like Nishiki, but there are also domestic varieties with good reputations also, such as Calrose Botan.
For our purposes here, all discussion of Japanese sushi rice refers to short-grain Japanese rice used to make sushi rolls. But here’s a fun caveat–you can use ANY kind of rice but some will be better suited than others.
It might not work out so great to use wild rice in place of white rice. Using brown rice will be slightly different due to the earthiness of the brown rice husk, but it’s not too much of a stretch to swap out white in favor of brown rice.
Making Japanese rice does not always mean making sushi rice. You can cook any type of Japanese rice with just plain water, or make sushi rice by adding part water, part vinegar, sugar, and salt. Sushi rice is even stickier than plain Japanese rice and it has a sweeter taste.
For some, cooking rice on the stovetop basically means adding double the liquid to the rice. Two cups of rice, four cups of liquid. But you’ll find advice online saying NOT to double up like this, but instead to add one cup of rice to one cup of water, plus an extra 20% more water. You can cook the rice on medium heat until it comes to a boil, then simmer.
The electric rice cooker is another way to make rice; using one or even making rice in an Instant Pot can be an excellent rice cooking alternative for busy people. Short grain rice is well suited for this, and preparing it this way can be a real time saver.
Some experience trouble with rice sticking to the container of the Instant Pot; you can rinse your rice before cooking to cut down on that. It is easy to add too much water to the cooker or Instant Pot; if your rice turns mushy you may need to reduce the amount of water you add before cooking.
If you want to flavor the rice as it cooks, you can use chicken or vegetable stock in place of the water. Adding garlic and other seasonings can add flavor, but it’s easy for some seasonings to get “lost” or obscured in the cooking process, so stronger seasonings are likely the best bet.
Some seasonings are better added at the very end of the cooking process; anytime you cook with cilantro or coriander you want to add those at the very end to prevent the leaves or stems from turning an unappetizing color.
As mentioned above, traditional sushi rice adds vinegar, sugar, and salt. But there’s a secret ingredient to add when cooking the rice for a subtle extra flavor: kombu.
This is a type of dried kelp you can find in Asian grocery stores. Place the kelp on top of the rice while it cooks and remove it like a bay leaf when the rice is finished. A piece of kombu large enough to cover the rice is perfect, and you will definitely taste the difference.
The best part is you can use that trick for many different approaches to rice; it’s not exclusive to making sushi. Some even add a bit of green tea to the rice water, which may be an acquired taste, but definitely a fun option to try with or without the kombu.
In the section above we mentioned needing kombu, vinegar, and even a bit of green tea. What kind of a shopping list should you make for Japanese rice?
For the vinegar, you want either plain white cooking vinegar or a Japanese sushi vinegar–these are often sold with some sugar added already, which is a plus. Kombu is often sold labeled as dried kelp; what you want are large sheets of kelp that can be broken in half and inserted in a rice cooker or boiling pot.
There are other ingredients. You may wish to experiment with adding fish stock or fish flakes to the water when cooking your rice. If so, try to use dried bonito flakes or bonito fish stock (often called dashi or hondashi) for this–the flavor is excellent and the dried bonito is useful for other Japanese recipes.
For toppings, Google or search your local Asian grocery stores for furikake, which is a seasoning blend meant to be sprinkled over rice in a similar fashion to crushed black pepper. There are many varieties of furikake, many are seafood flavored but others are not.
Some Asian groceries may sell dried or preserved bamboo shoots, as well as pickled ginger, and daikon radish. All of these are outstanding on Japanese rice and they have uses in many other dishes, too.
One rice hack some people enjoy is to buy a few packets of spicy ramen and use the seasoning packets over the Japanese rice. You’ll have to experiment with the amount of seasoning you use in this way (start small!) but this is an amazing rice hack worth trying.
Once the rice is cooked, the sky’s the limit on how you can serve it. You can start with the most rudimentary approach, which is serving just the rice with some furikake sprinkled on top.
Furikake, as mentioned earlier, is sort of a five-spice type seasoning blend made especially for rice. Often there is dried seafood in the mix along with sesame, seaweed, and mild spices. These toppings add a tremendous amount of flavor.
Unfortunately they don’t add any significant fat, protein, or other nutrients. They are flavor enhancers and nothing more. A bowl of rice topped with these alone may be filling, but it’s not a meal. For that you have to add veggies, meat or meat substitute, etc.
The most basic option would be the rice topped with furikake and some sesame oil. That one has more flavor–and some fat from the sesame oil–to make it a bit more well-rounded. But we’re not quite at a full one-bowl meal just yet. It’s still a bit too rudimentary.
Take the rice bowl mentioned above with the sesame oil and furikake, and now add raw, thinly sliced red and green bell pepper. Got some leftover rotisserie chicken from the store? You can take a bit of that, mince it and sprinkle on top.
Add a bit of soy sauce and a dash of something sweet like hoisin or duck sauce and you have something quick and easy to transport to the office for a healthier lunch than fast food.
Using tofu as a meat replacement in Japanese rice is a great way to make a healthy meal, but there is a hack or two you should know. Tofu comes in a variety of options, many related to how firm or soft it is. For Japanese rice you will want the firm variety, and you’ll want to add it to the rice last after preparing it. Tofu essentially absorbs the flavors of whatever it is cooked with, so you should consider sauteeing your tofu in garlic or other strong seasonings or spices, then add to the rice when it is ready to be plated.
Strong flavor options for your tofu can include curry powder, cumin, garlic, ginger, and other aromatics. If you need more umami in your tofu you can use a dash of fish sauce or mushroom powder, but experiment with these sparingly at first until you get the hang of the flavors. These can be as tricky to use in the right proportions as bay leaves or rosemary, so season accordingly.