Momoko Nakamura swirls brown rice clockwise, always clockwise, in a pot with her hands, dressed in a blue yukata (a traditional cotton robe), tabi socks, and zori sandals. She’s a striking sight at the Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn, where she’s demonstrating how to make perfect brown rice.
“I wish there were more words to describe rice in Japanese,” she says. “Wine has this brilliant vocabulary. Rice is just this common thing that you don’t give attention to, unfortunately.”
Nakamura is hoping to make people more discerning about an ingredient that’s often considered a blank canvas against which the rest of a meal shines. For her brown rice subscription service, Kiki Musubi (in Japanese kiki refers to “season” and “memory,” while musubi is a nod to both “connections” and “rice ball”), Nakamura roves the Japanese countryside, meeting small farmers and hand-selecting from the country’s 300 varietals. Every 15 days she dispatches a seasonally appropriate blend, free of chemicals and pesticides, in 500-gram packets or 1 or 2 kilos. In summer, she chooses varietals that are more nutty, light, and toothsome. In winter, they’re dense and chewy, with large grains similar to mochi.
These tiny grains of rice represent Nakamura’s large ambitions. She’s trying to change the minds of both Japanese farmers (who prefer the easier and more lucrative work of farming with pesticides) and consumers (who see brown rice as more expensive and harder to cook than white rice), in the face of a half-century of plummeting rice consumption in Japan; the average person now eats less than half the amount of rice annually as in 1962.
The steep decline dates back to the 1950s, when the U.S. government provided flour as food aid after World War II. Japan subsequently served bread in school lunches; this generation was the first to eat bread for at least one daily meal. A Western diet centered on bread, meat, and dairy was promoted as essential to strong bodies. It was even advertised that eating rice made one less intelligent.
In 2011, for the first time, Japanese families spent more on bread than on rice. Today’s turn away from rice is due to, among other factors, a growing preference for fast meals (noodles or bread take mere minutes to prepare) and an increasing trend of family members living separately instead of several generations under one roof—traditional meals of rice, miso soup, and a coterie of side dishes might seem like too much work for solo diners or small families.
Preservation is at the core of Nakamura’s work. She maintains that a love for rice remains ingrained in the Japanese. “Every child in Japan has fond memories around rice,” she says (hers is the smell of rice cooking). And she’s deeply concerned about both the environmental damage wrought by commercial farming, and the way in which it has stripped rice of its taste, texture, and terroir. She even wears a yukata daily out of support for the artisans who make the apparel, an extremely rare fashion choice for someone her age. “Even my mom thinks it’s a bit strange,” she laughs.
Nakamura, 37, grew up between the United States and Japan. She worked as a TV food show producer in New York for many years before settling in Tokyo three years ago. It struck her that the Japanese tend to be “incredibly discerning” in taste, from decor to wine to coffee, but that rice—a thing people ate three times a day or more—was “a bit of an ignored topic.” And people are loathe to invest in it. “The masses want the cheapest rice even though they’ll spend lots on their daily coffee,” she says, estimating that her rice, which starts at $290 for a single season, up to $2,300 for a year, comes out to 25 cents a bowl. Refrigerated, the dry rice will last a year or longer.