Tokyo restaurateur Tetsuhiro Yamaguchi smiles and says simply, “I love rice.” Yamaguchi opened his restaurant, Kokoromai (Heart of Rice), in the Minato-ku district of the Japanese capital six years ago, and its sibling Komefuku (which combines the Japanese words for rice and happiness) because he believes rice is part of the Japanese DNA.
He worries, though, that his countrymen are in danger of losing sight of rice’s integral value: “Today, we are eating too much potatoes, pasta and bread instead,” he says.
His restaurant is typical by Japanese standards. There’s a tiny, open kitchen with three chefs cheek by jowl facing a low counter, and a few other tables that take up to a maximum of 20 customers at any one time.
Before I am able to press him further on his passion for rice, Yamaguchi shows me his kitchen. On a long table are six clay pots containing half of the dozen varieties of Japanese rice he lists on his separate rice menu, which also shows the Japanese prefecture each was grown in, the name of the producer and the particular variety.
Though each variety is cooked the same way, there is an obvious distinction between several of them, even to the untrained eye, with one or two being definitely milkier in colour and others somewhat rounder in shape than the others.
There is also a marked difference on the palate. The rice from the Yamanashi prefecture, west of Tokyo, is quite sticky; two different varieties from the Yamagata prefecture, in the north of the country, have a stronger, chewier feel; the one from Miyagi, east of Yamagata, is the most refined and an excellent foil for sashimi; while the rice from Fukushima, further south, is so easy to eat that I could have emptied the bowl immediately but that would have left no appetite for the rice from Shiga prefecture, east of Kyoto, whose small, nutty grains convey the strongest flavour, making it a subtle accompaniment to grilled mackerel.
Yamaguchi tells me that each year he tastes about 80 of the 150 varieties of rice commercially available in Japan to create his rice menu, which is offered alongside a daily changing list of main courses.
He only buys unpolished rice, which the chefs polish the day before they need it. The rice is then washed using, in part, a softened mineral water and then kept overnight in water in the refrigerator. It is only cooked, boiled without any seasoning, as it is ordered.
Yamaguchi is a fine example of the obsession – and I don’t think this is too strong a word – that chefs or restaurateurs in Japan often have with a single ingredient or cooking style.
The other distinguishing factor is a concentration on seasonality. The rigour with which Japanese chefs follow the seasons is remarkable. The current season’s plum blossom, as an adjunct to soups or as a plate decoration, gives way to the far better known cherry blossom season in early April and then to peach blossom.
This seasonality is evident in a small dish I try at Tenmatsu, a small tempura restaurant in Kofu, a city that offers spectacular views of nearby Mount Fuji.
It features an ingredient that resembles a walnut. It is, in fact, fukinoto, the unopened bud of the Japanese butterbur, or sweet coltsfoot, which only appears on menus at the end of February and early March. Soft and slightly bitter, like so many Japanese ingredients, the appearance of fukinoto suggests spring has arrived.
Kokoromai, 2 F 6-18-7, Shirokane, Minato-ku, Tokyo, dinner only, closed Sunday, tel: +81 3 108-0072