Friday 12 July 2013

Like White on Rice

Let’s pretend that you care about your diet. Let’s also pretend that when I talk about ‘your diet’ you understand that I don’t mean that you’re on a diet – whatever Atkins, Seaweed, Columbian Duck Egg Every Thursday After A Full Moon With A Cup Of Horse Piss And A Stick In Your Ear fad is doing the rounds at the moment – but that I’m just using the word to mean whatever it is that you habitually choose to shovel into your mouth to provide energy. Well done, Pretend You, you’re now doing better than at least three-quarters of people who live in the First World.

Let us then also pretend that you’re vaguely conscious of your food’s energy values and have made a rough but genuine effort to calculate your daily calorific needs. This comes out at 2000, because it’s probably close enough and, more importantly, is a nice round number to make the maths easier.

So, you now have 2000 calories to ‘spend’ every day. There are certain things that you have to buy with these calories: Essential fatty acids, some vitamins and minerals, dietary fibre and the like. Your body can’t make these things for itself so if you aren’t getting them in your food, you aren’t getting them at all. Plus, you’re not a total puritan so you’re going to spend a bit on stuff you enjoy; a glass of beer, cheese, cake, whatever.

Finally, let’s get properly imaginative and say that these aren’t calories you’re spending but real money. Yen, pounds, dollars or whichever currency has most resonance for (real) you. I shall indicate this generic currency, not with the usual ₤, $, or ¥ symbol, but with a smiley face, because it amuses me ☺.

You have now been tasked to buy several things that you must have. Seriously, these aren’t optional and if you don’t get them you’ll get sick and die, or at the very least scurvy and constipation. You also want to live a little and spend some of your budget of ☺2000 on a few niceties, because there’s no point in being all grim and po-faced about stuff all the time. Ready? Let’s go pretend shopping!

Ah. No, wait. Sorry, I forgot to say, first what I want you to do is take about ☺600 and chuck it out the window. Defenestrate it good and proper; burn it, wipe your arse with it all I care (though that may prove difficult, as we shall see). Or, if you’re feeling really bloody minded, go and buy a bowl of white rice to have with each of your daily meals.


God, but white rice is such a nothing food. I genuinely love Japanese food. I know it can go a bit heavy on the whole soy+mirin+sugar angle, but I like those flavours so I don’t mind so much. Plus it’s not all like that and at its best I’d happily rank Japanese cuisine alongside any other in the world.

I know I’m from Britain, so some of you may be questioning my qualifications in this regard. “British food is shit,” after all. But I’m here to tell you that’s a lie. British food is categorically not shit. A proper roast is a thing of beauty because bloody meat is what roast potatoes were invented for; a well made treacle pudding is glorious because hot + sticky = fun; and Stilton is indisputably the best cheese in the world because Stilton. I think that should be fairly clear to everyone, no?

So British food is not bad, in fact it’s occasionally superb. It is however, frequently, depressingly, embarrassingly, made and served like shit. The problem is not the theory but the execution. The content is fine but the delivery sucks. It’s possible to eat incredibly well in the UK, but you’re going to pay through the fucking nose in order to do so. The low-range stuff is slurry and the mid-range is nonexistent.

Maybe that’s what I like about Japan. It’s not the food per se, but the fact that if you live near a decent sized city it’s reasonably easy to eat out reasonably well on a reasonable budget, in a way that just isn’t possible back home.

This can cause problems on the now depressingly rare evenings my wife and I can now eat out. I usually like to go for higher-end Japanese stuff, whereas she prefers French, or at least the Japanese interpretation of French. To be fair, sometimes this isn’t far off if you’re willing to stump up a bit of cash, but I’ve got fairly recent French ancestry and while I’m no expert I spent enough time at my grandmother’s dinner table to know that sometimes a miss is as good as a mile.

Now my wife’s on maternity leave so she’s doing the bulk of the day-to-day cooking. This, unavoidably, involves a lot of rice. Not white rice though. One of the many things I love about my wife is that she doesn’t automatically assume that The Japanese Way is inherently more superior just because it’s The Japanese Way. Well, she does, but is more open to persuasion by things like ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ than many other Japanese people I’ve met.

When our eldest was weaning, I suggested that maybe there were better things to be giving him than, essentially, very runny mochi. This was quickly dismissed, but after the second time the boy went several days without filling his nappy before, with loudly obvious discomfort, passing a turn the size and consistency of a golf ball, she started to entertain the idea that maybe something with just a touch more fibre might be of benefit. It’s porridge all the way now. My Celtic fraction is so proud.

A half is not a fraction in Scotland, it's an embarrassment. 

A good general rule of thumb is that the darker a food’s colour is, the better it will be for you. It’s not infallible, obviously. I’m not about to claim that chocolate cake is better than yogurt, for example. But given the choice between two similar foodstuffs the darker will normally be healthier, or at least less unhealthy. So brown rice is better – the brown contains at least a hint of vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Scrape that off and you’re left with almost entirely empty calories. Seriously, you could achieve a very similar nutritional effect to eating a bowl of white rice by just swallowing a teaspoon of sugar every five minutes for an hour or two, and hopefully that doesn’t strike anyone as a good idea.

And you know what’s better still? Proper vegetables. Things with leaves and roots. One of the most insidious side effects of Japan’s disproportionately influential farming lobby, and the protectionist, pork-barrel policies it begets, is the ludicrously high price of fruit and vegetables.

As a fully paid up member of the environmental movement, I have to state here that local food production is usually (but not always) the better option. Food miles are not a trivial concept. Fruit and veg cost more here because they’re not imported, and the cost of living and therefore production is higher. You’ll also hear that there’s not that much space for agriculture so there’s inevitably a premium on fresh produce, and that’s also true to an extent. But what exacerbates this problem a hundredfold is that the vast majority of what little arable land Japan has is dedicated to the production of, yep, rice.

"We Japanese love nature."

It’s one of those awful self-fulfilling prophecies of which we’re all so fond. People eat rice because they’re Japanese, and because the alternatives are disproportionately expensive, and those alternatives are expensive because everyone eats rice because they’re Japanese.

If it were any other substance, or any other more specific than ‘food and water’ – and people were unthinkingly and automatically consuming it three times a day every day simply because they felt they needed to you wouldn’t call it a cultural trait, you’d call it an addiction. Japan is addicted to white rice and there's no chance of it kicking the habit. Not Twelve Step programme, no Cold Turkey. It’s no coincidence that heroin also causes constipation.


  1. "People eat rice because they’re Japanese, and because the alternatives are disproportionately expensive, and those alternatives are expensive because everyone eats rice because they’re Japanese."

    First, I have come to loathe rice as I came to loathe potatoes in my Irish-Canadian mother's house. It took me five years after leaving home to deign to cook any, and those with much toppings. Short of divorce, I am stuck with white rice until death, but I have insisted on not more than once a day. I have also brought it to my wife's attention that rice is not a traditional Japanese food, except for the wealthy: her ancestors may have grown it for the lords, but they lived on millet and acorns. However, this much I agree with the locals: healthy as it may be, brown rice is disgusting. Oats?

    "Oats: a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people." - Johnson

    I am sure you are aware that rice is made a profitable crop by subsidies that amount to buying votes in the disproportionately influential rural seats, with disproportionately lower (and ancient, and conservative) populations. Better that land grew vegetables, fruit and mast, pasture, or even better, naturalized if it is unprofitable. This is happening by itself, mainly as few young women want to live on the farms, so the young men follow them to the cities if they are unwilling to order a Filipina or Thai.

    Rice can be shipped from abroad more cheaply than the others. Japanese will tell you their rice is better, but apart from being grown in paddies, and the genus of the rice, this is bullshit: most Japanese rice is hardly grown with spring water and without chemicals, though I would not switch it for anything from China... In any case, if Japanese rice is so special, let it compete in the market and see what consumers do... Most of the rice in processed food is from overseas, not that the Japanese can internalize the fact there is no way they grow enough for 120 million.

    The only good arguments for the present state is that being able to eat so much rice means most Japanese are as effectively wealthy as the lords were before Meiji, and to avoid another famine such as the US WWII blockade caused (as much is due to sending your young male farmers to die pointless deaths). This is true enough, but it is about time to get over both: wealth has different markers now, and any war Japan may be in will end long before anyone gets up an effective blockade.

    1. That was just a brilliant follow-up. Bravo. (I'm not being sarcastic, btw.)

    2. I can only agree with Pep, with maybe a slight shake of the fist at such comprehensive thunder theft :(

      That said, one of the joys of having a small but responsive readership is that I can leave stuff out and be fairly certain I'll get a chance to pick up the pieces in the comments section. You've saved me the trouble of even doing that. Thank you. I'm even willing to overlook the slur on porridge...

    3. I meant to steal no thunder. This is your blog: anything valuable in my comments was inspired by it (the flaws are my own).

  2. Well said. Vegetables are awesome. Would it be rubbing it if I said I went to the market after work and got a huge shopping bag of vegies for $5 tonight?

    Btw my nan used always say you shouldn't eat white foods. We used to laugh at her for being old-fashioned but, like her advice about staying out of the sun, time has told. I just hope she isn't proven right about all that Jesus stuff!

    1. Yes, it would be rubbing it in. Lord, I loved the food in Australia. You've got no national cuisine of your own to speak of (pie floaters don't count), but that hardly matters when you can nick the best from around the world. And so cheap. Goddamit, Kathryn...

  3. My own contribution to this dialogue is an amazing Ministry of Agriculture video:

    1. "Food is indispensable to our survival."

      I stopped watching after that. There is no earthly way it's possible to top that. Thank you so much.

    2. Nice link!

      Here is just a start on the half-truths and logical fallacies (a Japanese inevitability). Only 40% grown domestically (and no, it is not because of a change of diet - you could grow anything foreign from a matching climactic zone, it's because both you have too many flipping people and your agricultural sector is highly inefficient)? That is the definition of: 'accident waiting to happen'. White rice was not a traditional food for most people! It was for the rich, and it was the basic unit for taxation. Also, it is not a preferable part of a 'balanced diet'! As for the more 'western' diet (so long as you do not go to excess): shapelier women! Taller of both genders as the legs get longer than comical. Not sure how they think they can make it seem like aging farmers is because of foreign food imports... On the other hand, yes, bio-fuels are a freaking crime. And the solution...? Reflection and eating rice and fish, of course (which will still come from overseas, but never mind that). 'Ware-ware nihonji-ga...'. Um... never mind what consumer, producers and distributors 'should' do: don't leave the LDP in charge of policies oriented only to reelection in 'rotten boroughs'. Also, why do the cows and the humans dance?

    3. This video was a huge hit when I was in grad school. We'd watch it over and over, especially the dancing cows and the mindless, obese Americans. (Spaghetti! Hamburgers! Cake! At the same time!)

      Farm policy worldwide is a pathetic joke, but the Republicans failing to pass a farm bill here don't make videos of this quality.

  4. It's also pretty depressing that a huge percentage of fruits and veggies here in Japan don't make it to market because of imperfections in appearance. When I lived in a rural area in Tohoku, it was amazing how much I got in the way of free fruit and vegetables because farmer neighbors were just going to throw it away. Fuck, if nothing else, put together a co-op system and ship that stuff to people in need...

  5. The price.

    Japanese rice in 2003 was cheaper in Hawaii than it was in Japan.
    The Japanese Yakuza man I was being a guide for was absolutely floored. He was writing #'s on a piece of paper that he asked me to get using the exchange rate which he knew because we had just...just exchanged yen to dollar. He blew half a 30 dollar pre paid phone card calling his son to confirm what he was seeing at DAIEI supermarket in Hawaii.

    They keep the price high for the locals that are not farmers or rural residents. They dumped 100's of tons of Daikon a few years back at the demand of farmers who feared an over abundance would cause a price cut. Their fees were set really so the dumping was a PR problem since...well...there are hungry folks in Japan believe it or not and leaving a mountain of turnips to rot when some companies offered to take them off their hands seemed....bad.

    In a typical harvest year residents in Hawaii are probably paying less for Japanese folks for Japanese rice. I know 1 person that really really infuriated.

    1. Not just Japan for insane subsidies. EU also, and American (corn turned into fuel and diabetes) and Canada (GM canola), etc.:

      I am no free-market advocate (and neither are those who call themselves that when they're at the trough) but beyond securing a reasonable and healthy food supply, and saving farmers from ruin, not agribusiness, the rest is pork-barrelling, so to speak.

  6. My typing get what I mean..I hope :(

    1. It's all good. I'm sure I've spent enough typo credit over at yours for you to call in a few debts every now and then ;)

  7. Takagi Kenehiro, British educated, had to push hard to get people to listen to what he had to say about beri beri. Kind of reminds me of English teaching in a way in terms of how grammar-translation is still the main staple.

    Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'm going to be sick.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. That should read 'Kanehiro' with an 'a'. Anyway... bon appetite.

  8. Dear All,

    I'm always immensely gratified when a decent discussion develops under a post (that's not sarcasm, I really am, so thank you everyone), but am always slightly taken aback as to what catches the imagination. It's also a little distressing when so many of those comments are much smarter than anything I have or could contribute, which is why I'm confining myself to this blanket 'thank you'.

    Anyway, I'm off to work on my next post, which is about AKB48's impact upon the EU's common fisheries policy, as that appears to be what the punters want...