Sifting out the best Japanese rice for Singapore
UNLIKE other sommeliers, Mr 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.
When he started Tawaraya as an online Japanese rice delivery service, the main sources in Singapore of Japanese rice 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.
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 got 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.
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 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 of even better quality, but 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.