Japan's wizard of rice shows how to cook it perfectly

SAKAI, Osaka - When Tsutomu Murashima opened his restaurant in 1963, he left the main cooking chores to his wife so he could focus on his specialty, fixing the rice. The method he developed produced a soft-textured rice that was so good it earned him a reputation in the business as a "wizard of rice."

Murashima drew visitors not only from a major manufacturer of rice cookers seeking his advice for developing a new product, but also the Chinese government. The 86-year-old is now sharing his expertise with this Asian neighbour.

"I just follow the traditional way of cooking rice that says such simple things as, 'Start with low heat and then turn it up midway through,'" said Murashima.

When Murashima operated a restaurant, named Ginshariya Gekotei, in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, he cooked rice with water in which he soaked oyster shells and charcoal before cooking to improve its quality. The eatery was closed during the summer because "the quality of the water changes" with the season, he said.

Such dedication to his craft eventually earned him the nickname meshitaki sennin, meaning "a hermit of rice cooking."

Murashima "retired" in 2013 when Fujio Food System Co., the Osaka-based operator of Maido Okini Shokudo eateries across the nation, took over his restaurant. But concerned about the taste of the rice served there, he drops in on the restaurant whenever he has time to check its rice cooking cauldron.

Murashima's fame led him to be contacted by China's Commerce Ministry, which sought his co-operation in the branding of Chinese rice and researching a cooking method that takes best advantage of its features. The master was also asked to co-operate on the development of a rice cooker.

"I've been eating rice all my life. I've also cooked rice as my business," he said. "I'm happy if I can be of any help [to people] overseas." Murashima agreed to a three-year contract starting from 2016.

He believes that delicious cooked rice should have three elements: stickiness, gloss and aroma, and it puzzled him that Chinese rice was less sticky than its Japanese counterpart.

But he found "the Chinese people place accompanying dishes on top of the rice to season it. Their preference with regard to sticky rice is different from the Japanese."

Murashima eventually was able to cook delicious Chinese rice by slightly changing the length of time it was soaked in water.

Last year, Murashima visited China four times. Using his favourite cauldron brought from Japan, the master gave rice-cooking demonstrations at events held in Beijing and other places. He also made rice balls at his accommodations to give to local residents.

Murashima had the chance to travel around China to such places as Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces to try the local varieties of rice. He took part in a project to select from about 50 varieties those with the best quality, which were awarded "silver rice" certificates. In Japan, that colour is often used to describe cooked white rice because of its glossy surface.

Murashima returned to China in March and offered his cooked rice to visitors at events and other occasions.

"It makes me happy to see the Chinese eating [my rice] with smiles and saying, 'It's delicious,'" he said. "Japanese rice has its own advantages and so does Chinese rice. What's important is to use the cooking method most appropriate for each variety. That's what I want to convey."Speech