While in Japan, you are bound to come across many types of dishes which feature rice along with vegetables, meat or seafood. From the dizzying array of bentos sold at restaurants, shops and train stations to the suite of donburi offerings including oyako-don, yakiniku-don, hitsumabushi, and more, Japan is a country where you will have no trouble finding creative renditions of the humble yet satisfying rice.
How about embarking on this journey to find out more about some special rice dishes from Japan? First up, we have the auspicious-looking Sekihan!
Sekihan (赤飯) or red rice, is a rice dish made from glutinous rice (mochigome, もち米) and azuki (小豆) beans or black-eyed peas (sasage, 大角豆). The proportion of beans to be added is about 10 to 20 percent of the rice’s quantity.
The glutinous rice is steamed rather than boiled in an electric rice cooker so as to reduce its stickiness. If you wish to use a rice cooker rather than a steamer, it is recommended to add uruchigome (うるち米) i.e. non-glutinous rice, of about 10 to 20 percent of the glutinous rice’s quantity in order to get the right texture.
There are at least two different ways to prepare the azuki beans. Some recipes recommend soaking the beans overnight in hot water before boiling them, while others suggest boiling the beans first and then leaving them to cool. Regardless of the method you choose, the aim is to cook the beans until they are softer.
The red extract from the boiled azuki beans which has turned the water reddish brown is then used to soak the rice for a couple of hours so that it gets its light red hue. There are instances when red artificial colouring is added if the colour of the red liquid is too light so don’t be surprised to find sekihan sold in shops containing this ingredient. The rice is then steamed or boiled along with the azuki beans.
Once the sekihan is ready, various ingredients are added depending on the locality. For example, in Chiba Prefecture, peanuts are added to the sekihan as they are widely produced there. In Hokkaido and Yamanashi, they tend to add sweet natto into their sekihan after it is cooked because the natto beans will disintegrate if cooked with the rice. As there is no use of azuki beans, the sekihan gets its colour from red food colouring. As for the Saku Basin in Nagano Prefecture, it uses scarlet runner bean while in the rest of the prefecture, sugar is added to make the sekihan sweet. In the Kanto region, sasage is preferred over azuki in sekihan because the latter breaks easily after cooking and is considered to remind people of seppuku (切腹) which it is not an auspicious sign. Sesame salt is sprinkled on top of the sekihan when it is to be served.
You may be surprised to know that the calorie content of sekihan is actually 1.2 to 1.5 times more than steamed non-glutinous rice. However, it comes with high levels of copper, proteins and zinc about two times more than white rice. Due to the usage of glutinous rice in the sekihan, the low level of amylose (a type of starch) keeps you feeling fuller as compared to the non-glutinous version.
Sekihan is said to have evolved from the red rice brought into Japan from China during the Jomon era. Since historical times, the colour red has been said to have the power of expelling evil spirits. As such, the red rice was offered to the gods at various shrines. When people started to develop an interest in eating the same type of red rice, the steamed version of red rice was the early form of sekihan. The dish became a sign of auspiciousness from the Muromachi era while in the Edo era, it became something found on the commoners’ dining tables.
However, with advancements in agricultural technology, white rice became a more popular crop since it was easier to grow and the volume of output was higher than red rice. In addition, the taste of red rice was also said to be inferior to white rice thus leading to the decreasing popularity of red rice until it was no longer grown in Japan. Nonetheless, people wanted to carry on with the tradition of eating sekihan so they resorted to dyeing the white rice red with the extract from azuki beans. As for the practice of adding sesame to the sekihan, it was said to be for the purpose of bluffing the gods as the Japanese word for sesame is goma (ごま) and sounds like the term gomakasu (ごまかす) which means bluff since the red rice offered to the gods was actually not the real thing.
Until the Meiji era, steamed glutinous rice with no beans added was known as okowa (おこわ) while the version with azuki beans was known as sekihan. Later, both terms were used interchangeably to refer to sekihan. The boiling method to make sekihan was also developed much later. Due to the high nutritional value of the dish, it is available in canned form and can be kept as an emergency food supply. At many convenience stores, shops at train stations and supermarkets, you can also find sekihan onigiri (赤飯おにぎり) and sekihan bento (赤飯弁当).
In the later part of the Kamakura era, sekihan was eaten in the imperial palace during the four seasonal turning points based on the lunar calendar on jinjitsu (人日) 7 January, joushi (上巳) on 3 March, dango (端午) on 5 May, tanabata (七夕) on 7 July and chouyou (重陽) on 9 September. When the practice of eating sekihan spread to the commoners, it became a staple during joyous occasions and is believed to be an auspicious sign to chase away bad luck and bring in good fortune. For example, some of these special occasions when sekihan is eaten would be the obiiwai (帯祝い) where an obi is tied around a pregnant woman so as to pray for a smooth delivery, the birth of a baby, and the kuizome (食い初め) or weaning ceremony, which is held 100 days to 120 days after a child is born. On the 60th, 70th, 77th, 88th and 99th birthdays, sekihan is also eaten as a sign of celebration. Last but not least, the dish is eaten to commemorate occasions such as the shichigosan, first day of school, graduation ceremony, Coming-of-Age ceremony and roof-laying ceremony.
In the past, there was a custom of making and giving away sekihan when there was a girl in the household who had her first period since this marked her entry into womanhood. However, this has become less common in recent times.
Did you know that there is an organization which strives to promote Sekihan in Japan and beyond? Sekihan Bunka Keihatsu Kyoukai (赤飯文化啓発協会) was set up on 22 November 2012 in Tokyo and aims to achieve the following:
– increase awareness on Sekihan in terms of its nutritional, traditional cultural and historical values and conduct related activities
– publicize the Sekihan Day which is held on 23 November each year
The organization’s website also provides a list of its members who produce and sell sekihan so you can check it for the shops you can visit to purchase the dish while you are in Japan. Unfortunately, the website is in Japanese only.
How about giving sekihan a try during your trip and bringing yourself some good fortune?