Unlike other sommeliers, Yuichi Sato doesn't play with pretty decanters, sniff and swirl, or expound on the differing qualities of red and white. Instead, he sifts through the contents of giant paper sacks, points out the minor differences between brown and white, and tells you that empty 1.5 litre PET bottles are his storage receptacles of choice.
Mr Sato, 32, is a rice sommelier - an unusual occupation anywhere else but certainly not in a country obsessed with the quality of just about everything, particularly this shiny, chewy staple that forms the soul of Japanese cooking. Sommeliers like him are taught to differentiate between different grades of rice, as well as the growing methods and history. There are probably about 1,000 accredited rice sommeliers in Japan, but Mr Sato is the only one in Singapore. The former banker gave up his cushy career back home two years ago to pursue his passion and create a niche he knew he could fill in Japanese food-obsessed Singapore - a demand for premium quality rice.
When he started Tawaraya as an online Japanese rice delivery service, the main sources in Singapore were supermarkets such as Meidi-ya and Isetan. While it was tough going at first (especially with the high yen at the time), he now has a steady clientele of around 75 restaurants and 1,500 online customers who have switched to his personally-chosen artisanal rice that he sources from farms in Niigata and Hokkaido.
Working from his no-frills office/factory in Pandan Avenue which he leases from a Japanese logistics company, Mr Sato brings in 16 tonnes of rice every two months which is polished to order to ensure freshness - a key factor that sets Tawaraya apart from the pre-packaged rice available commercially.
Like any perishable produce, rice tastes best at its freshest, which is immediately after the brown kernels are polished down to their pristine shiny white state. The best time to buy and consume rice is within a month of polishing, says Mr Sato, but if it's not possible, it should be kept in the fridge in plastic PET bottles for easy keeping. Commercial rice is already polished before it's packed for export, so it's impossible to know how old the rice that you buy off the shelf is.
Half of Japan's rice is grown in Niigata prefecture - home of the famed Hoshihikari, although quality varies depending on the source. "Rice in Niigata tastes good and is easy to grow," says Mr Sato about Hoshihikari's popularity. "But now, Hokkaido rice is catching up. Before, it was difficult to grow rice there because of the cold temperature, but they have developed strains that can withstand the weather and the quality is becoming very good."
Mr Sato's experience with rice comes naturally - he was born in Niigata and his grandfather was a rice farmer although the family has since given up the trade because of immense competition. Now, he makes regular trips to farms, sussing out the quality of the grain and the farming practices before he decides what he wants to import into Singapore. He picks farms that use the least amount of chemicals as well as those that use no chemicals at all, he says. "But unless you are eating brown rice, buying organic does not make a big difference once the rice is polished because you've already gotten rid of the outer layer." However, farmers which use minimal chemicals or are completely organic also take more care with their crop, which means better tasting rice.
What kind of rice you buy depends on personal preference, he adds, but the best indication of quality is that the rice still tastes soft and chewy even when it's cold. "That's how the onigiri culture came about - that is, the popular rice balls that the Japanese eat all the time." He grades his rice according to taste, smell and stickiness, with Hokkaido Nanatsuboshi being less sticky and more sushi-like, while softer rice that's best eaten on its own would be Hokkaido Yumepirika. The gold standard, of course, would be Niigata Hoshikihari which is a perfect balance between the two. Mr Sato gets his rice from Uonuma in south Niigata which he says grows the best quality rice. He's just started to bring in rice from south Uonuma, which he says is even better quality, but of course at a premium price. A 2kg bag of south Uonuma rice goes for $31, 50 per cent more than a similar sized bag of Hokkaido Nanatsuboshi.
Considering that a 10kg bag of Royal Umbrella Thai rice weighs in at around $30, Japanese rice is no everyday meal, but it certainly hasn't put the brakes on Mr Sato's endeavour to bring the best of his homeland to Singapore. It's one reason why he quit banking he says. There's so much premium produce in Japan that doesn't leave the country, but his passion is such that "it's good to share, so more people can appreciate it," he says.
For more information, go to www.tawaraya.com.sg or call 9061 6524.
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