What Makes Sushi Rice Sushi Rice?

When it comes right down to it, is there really any difference in using Japanese sushi rice compared to using just any regular old white rice?

What makes sushi rice preferable for making sushi? To start with, it is what sushi chefs use to make their dishes. Its size, shape, and starch content makes it perfect for retaining shape when molded or rolled. What’s more, some farms specifically cultivate the rice so that it can be used for sushi perfectly.

Having pointed that out, this doesn’t mean that other rice can’t be used for making sushi, but you still need to be careful in choosing the right strains.

How Rice is Chosen for Making Sushi

Looking at the matter of choosing rice for making sushi from a purely academic point of view, the reasons why Japanese sushi rice is the preferred choice becomes obvious. It contains many of the characteristics that are prized for this specific dish. Of course, this is not to say that it is the only choice, but does have a top position thanks to the qualities detailed in the table below:

Starch contentThe amount of starch that is present in every grain contribute to the stickiness of the rice, along with affecting its firmness.
SizeShorter, fatter grains lend more towards shape retention.
ShapeSmoother, rounder grains contribute to uniformity.
ColorWhite grains are preferred for sushi due to the contrast with nori, fillings, or toppings.
AromaThe smell of the rice must not be overpowering since it could overshadow the other ingredients.
TextureThe grains must be soft, yet form when consumed as sushi for maximum enjoyment with regards to the mouthfeel.

It’s worth remembering that sushi is a dish that is meant to have certain characteristics that affect the choice of rice used for it. To be more specific, it should have the following qualities in order to bring about the best experience:

·         The flavors must complement each other

·         The taste, aroma, size, and combinations but be balanced

·         The texture must be soft, yet firm

·         The rice must be moldable and retains its shape

·         The colors must contrast each other

These are the goals when making sushi and how well you can achieve them will depend a lot on the rice that you use. When you choose rice that is too long, has too little starch, and has the wrong shape, you end up with loose sushi. This will ruin the experience when it is already in the mouth since it conveys the wrong mouthfeel.

Starting with the flavor, for example, each and every part of the sushi must reinforce each other, not overpower, and certainly not clash. This is why the rice is so important because it can act as a buffer against the toppings or the other flavors.

The starch content of the rice basically gives it a neutral taste, which cancels out some of the more intense flavors of the other ingredients. When these are rolling around in your mouth as you chew, it allows the flavors to spread more evenly, thus preventing your taste buds from being overwhelmed.

Of course, sushi chefs also take care to use ingredients that won’t clash such as using anything too sour or too sweet. This is also why fresh ingredients are often the norm since they are more suitable for gentle palates than anything.

This is then where the balance of all the aspects of the sushi comes in. One of the most amazing qualities of this dish is how it basically represents equality of spectrum when done right. The amount of rice is just perfect and the same goes for the fillings in a roll or the toppings on a ball or a block.

No ingredient must stand out more than the rest when all is said and done. If there is a piece that did not register in the taste buds, this simply means that there was not enough of it or the other ingredients were too intense. You should not taste more rice than fish or more fish than rice.

With regards to the texture, the rice is likely to be the standout affair since it will compose the biggest part of the sushi. This is why it must have a firm shape but a soft chewiness to it. However, this does not only apply to rice. Everything else must have a good texture.

Crunchy vegetables must not be soggy while soft filling must not be dry. If you see a cucumber or a winter melon in a roll, your brain automatically expects there to be a crunch. If that doesn’t happen, you will feel like something has gone wrong.

Since sushi is the kind of food that is molded and shaped, it’s only natural that the rice needs to have these qualities. As such, when you take out a small portion of rice and turn it into any shape you want, it must not fall apart or get loose. A lot of this will rely on the stickiness of the grains, which will be affected by the level of starch in them.

More than that, though, how the rice was cooked and flavored will also have a major impact on how moldable it will be. If it is overcooked or undercooked, you end up with soggy rice. If you flavor it too late, you end up with grains that are too slippery and won’t easily stick together.

Finally, the colors must contrast so that you can produce a more interesting and pleasant visual experience. This is why the whiteness of the rice is so important since it can contrast with practically any color. On that note, there is such a thing as the rice being too white and this can happen when you use grains that have too much starch.

When this happens, you will have other problems to deal with such as rice grains that have become too sticky. This is then an entirely different set of issues that might require you to buy new rice or put the one you already have through a rigorous rinsing process. This is exactly why starch content is important in considering rice to be sued for sushi.

Starch Content – There is no denying that the rice that should be used for sushi should be of the stickier variety but there is a limit to either end of the spectrum. Japanese rice is often chosen because it has the right amount of starch that makes the grains easy to work with. This applies to the cooking of the rice, the flavoring, and of course, the molding.

If there is too little starch in the grains, this makes them less absorbent of water and will result in textures that are not pleasant for this kind of dish. Molding them will also be a bit difficult, which is why some homemade sushi rice might end up falling apart easily.

On the other hand, if the rice you chose was too starchy, this could make the grains too sticky. This will then result in a rather gooey experience for the who eat them, which is a different kind of unpleasant. As such, you want to aim for rice that has just the right amount of starch.

Size – Generally speaking, rice can be classified into two main categories if we’re just judging things based on size: long grain rice and short-grain rice. However, even these two categories can also have their differences, so it’s important to pay attention and compare when you can.

Just to make things simple for you, you only really need to find the smallest rice grains you can that still retain their shapes. This is important because some rice brands are made smaller because they were ground and that is not what you want.

Typically, you want rice that is about a third shorter than regular rice, which is what you get with Japanese sushi rice anyway. This is the perfect size that you want to go for if you are planning on making sushi that will actually be worth your while.

Shape – Aside from the size of the grains, the shape must also be right so that you can produce the kind of sushi rice that will actually be able to retain their shapes when molded and will have good textures. Some rice can almost be square in terms of the circumference and this is not what you want. You want the grains that are round all throughout.

Obviously, this is not going to be the case with each and every grain in the bag, but that doesn’t matter. As long as most of the grains are round and smooth, you will get good sushi. This is why you should pick the shortest, roundest, and fullest rice you can find without going too far and getting the sticky variety.

Color – The color of the rice that you are going to use for sushi is incredibly important, especially if you are considering feeding the resulting products to those who have had them before. The whiteness of the rice is one of the most recognizable characteristics of sushi and generally speaking, the whiter the better. As already said before, though, there is a limit.

On that note, you need to be careful with grains that have slight discolorations or come with pigmentations that interfere with the pureness whiteness of the rice. This could be enough of a distraction for anyone who eats the sushi that it could ruin their experience.

Another reason why going for pure white grains is essential is due to the fact that it presents a stark contrast to the other colors of the other ingredients. You are basically looking at the food version of a blank sheet of canvas, with the fillings, toppings, nori, condiments, and coatings being the paint.

Thanks to the rice, the other palettes gain prominence and vice versa. This provides an excellent visual appreciation for the people who are going to eat sushi.

Aroma – As regular sushi diners would already know this type of dish involves quite a deep experience with regards to the sense of smell. A lot of this can be attributed to the wasabi basically breaking the locks of every sense and forcing you to take everything in.

As such, the aroma of the rice that you are going to choose should not be overpowering or too prominent. Japanese sushi rice comes with a mild, almost muted aroma that is still pleasant but you would not really know it is there until you try to smell it.

In the case of more aromatic grains, you have no choice but to smell the rice and they can even come with their own prominent flavors. This is definitely not something you want with your sushi rice since it can interfere with everything else. After all, you are dealing with ingredients that are often fresh and don’t come with obvious smells that cooked food items do.

If the rice is too aromatic, it could create an imbalance in your dining experience that overshadows even the taste of the other ingredients. If you paid a lot of money for that sushi dish, this would be as good as you flushing gold down the toilet.

Texture – Finally, we have texture as a quality that is often considered when choosing rice that will be used for making sushi. Simply put, you need to find rice that will give you the maximum satisfaction in terms of mouthfeel when taking the other ingredients into consideration.

This means that when the rice is cooked properly, it must be perfectly plump, firm, but soft. When you start chewing on the grains, they must give way, but they shouldn’t give you the feeling of mushiness. Likewise, you shouldn’t feel as if you were chewing on half-cooked grains, ether.

This is important because the other ingredients in the sushi will collide with rice grains that are too soft or too firm. This will not be good for the mouthfeel and might even result in your jaw hurting if the grains are chewy enough.

What’s the Difference Between Sushi Rice and Regular Rice?

To be clear, when you are talking about sushi rice, you could be referring to two entirely different things. When you throw in regular rice into the mix, you are adding a whole new set of issues that can be quite contrary to each other. As such, it might be best to tackle these subjects one by one.

To start with, sushi rice can either mean the rice that is being promoted as meant to be used for sushi or it could mean the rice that is actually used for making sushi. In the first case, this is basically Japanese rice that has high starch levels, which is what sushi chefs favor when making sushi.

Traditionally speaking, it’s what the Japanese use for everyday cooking and it is also different from the Japanese sticky rice, which is used for making food items like mocha. So when you are shopping for rice at the supermarket, you might want to keep this in mind.

With regards to the rice that is then used for making sushi, this can be any rice as long as it has been flavored with vinegar, salt, and sugar. You can call this sushi rice because this is the kind of mixture that is often used for the dish.

Coming to what you would consider regular rice, this itself can have multiple implications. You could be talking about long grain rice like basmati, which is a fragrant variant that is often used in Indian cuisine. There is also Jasmine rice, which hails from regions in and around Thailand, which is known for its floral aroma that makes it perfect as a side dish.

When talking about the kind of rice that most households have access to, though, this would be the white variety that comes with a neutral aroma and a decent level of starch content. These are the kinds of rice that you would cook via the rice cooker or a steamer for everyday consumption. It’s the kind that comes with a cheaper price tag and is often sold in huge sacks.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can talk about their differences and we will focus on Japanese rice and the white rice that is most accessible to most households. Their differences largely boil down to:

·         Size

·         Starch content

·         Price

·         Branding

Japanese rice is considered a member of the short-grain variety, though, there are those who would argue that it is actually a medium grain. Either way, it is smaller than what is commonly available throughout the supermarkets in the US. However, there are other varieties of short-grain rice, so make sure that the label actually marks it as Japanese rice.

In terms of starch content, Japanese rice also has a higher amount of that compared to regular rice. Part of this is due to the size of the grains since the starch is more concentrated. Part of it is due to cultivation, which farmers in Japan tend to emphasize.

The price of Japanese rice also tends to be higher compared to that of regular rice, which is why some sushi enthusiasts purchase the latter rather than the former. Aside from a difference in experience when finally eating the sushi, there really isn’t much of an issue with this.

Finally, there’s the matter of branding. Japanese rice is most commonly pushed as the rice of choice when making sushi through marketing and just general consensus. On the other hand, regular rice is pushed as the preferred choice when making a side dish for Asian cuisine.

You can choose to listen to the advertisers if you want, but at the end of the day, you will be the one to make that choice. If you really want to use regular rice for your sushi, there nothing stopping you from doing just that.

Is There Such a Thing as Japanese Sushi Rice?

There are many who contend the existence of Japanese sushi rice simply because they argue that it’s basically regular Japanese rice that is then made into sushi. However, this is not necessarily the case. While it is true that the general variety used for making sushi can be broadly considered to fall under the category called Japonica, not all of them are the same.

Rice is an entire industry of huge differences depending on where they come from, who cultivated them, how they were cultivated, and what their purpose is. This applies to Japonica, as well, where some farmers pride themselves for cultivating the stickiest variety without completely going over to the sticky rice side of the spectrum.

Simply put, some Japonica is stickier than others and it is these that can make for a truly wonderful sushi experience. This is due to the fact that they are easier to mold without becoming too glutinous. You basically cooked them in the same manner as you would cook ordinary rice, but the results include a richer, plumper collection of grains.

When you are looking out for these specific features when you are shopping for sushi rice, you will have a more rewarding experience when making your sushi. Of course, this is all a matter of perspective since sticky Japonica is still Japonica. However, for the sake of argument, a distinction can still be made if we are talking about what purpose the rice will be used for.

Less sticky Japonica will be for regular, everyday consumption while the stickier kinds will be used for sushi. Looking at it that way, Japanese sushi rice certainly exists, though we did have to go through quite a bit of mental gymnastics to get there. At the end of the day, though, does any of this actually matter? In the grand scheme of things, the answer is no.

Related Questions

Can You Use Any Rice for Sushi?

Technically, there should be nothing stopping you from using any other type of rice for making sushi with, but just don’t expect the results to be the same. There are bound to be certain differences pertaining to the texture, flavor, aroma, and how well it can retain its shape.

What’s The Best Alternative to Japanese Rice?

Japanese rice is short grain rice, so if you don’t have that, you can just find any short grain rice brand and use that instead. The starch levels should still be relatively close and it is far better to use these types of rice instead of the long-grain variety, which can be less starchy.

Why Sushi Rice is the Preferred Rice by Sushi Chefs

It’s no secret that sushi chefs like to use Japanese rice and the reasons are quite easy to understand. Simply put, chefs like to work with ingredients that they are familiar with if they are not experimenting and it has been proven time and again that this type of rice is perfect for sushi. More creative chefs can certainly use alternatives, but traditional cooks can be more rigid in this regard.

There is also the fact that most sushi consumers are already familiar with Japanese rice and any change in that regard can lead to a decrease in satisfaction. For example, anyone who has ever eaten sushi where one is made of short-grain rice and the other is made of long-grain rice will notice the difference.

To start with, there is the glutinous nature of the short-grain rice. These types of grains tend to be more satisfying to eat because they are chewer, more moist, and more tender. On the other hand, you have long-grain rice that tend to be dry, overly firm, and generally loose.

As a matter of fact, eating certain long-grain rice varieties as sushi rice might actually put you at risk of choking. Since they can be looser, the molded balls or blocks can fall apart. This is made more troubling because you eat sushi whole and not bit by bit. Taking these factors into consideration, one wrong breath or burst of laughter is liable to send grains flying out your nose and down your lungs.

That is not a situation that you want to find yourself in.

Why Long Grain Rice Is Not Suitable for Sushi

It was already covered briefly before, but while there is nothing technically stopping you from using long grain rice for sushi, it is not advised if you have not mastered cooking rice. To start with, the low starch content makes certain varieties of long-grain rice unsuitable for being molded. The grains don’t stick together that well.

As brought up already, loose sushi can put you at risk of choking. However, it can be so much more than that. There is also the fact that you will be making more of a mess, regardless of whether you are using your fingers or your chopsticks. If you are eating with company, that would just be embarrassing.

On the matter of satisfaction, long-grain rice is just not as satisfactory as short-grain rice. In terms of texture, mouthfeel, taste, and how it complements the flavor of the other ingredients, there is just no comparison.

There is also the fact that long-grain rice just does not look as good when included in sushi as short-grain rice. Even if you are not the most avid of sushi enthusiasts, you can just see the difference right away and if you enjoy sushi that was made the right way before, it will create a sense of dissonance. This will have a huge impact on your enjoyment of the dish, for sure.  

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