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Kumamoto company turns to brown rice paste to revive Japan’s abandoned farmland

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Tokyo >> Alarmed by an increase in abandoned rice paddies amid the Westernization of the Japanese diet and a graying population, a Kyushu dealer of major agricultural machinery-maker Kubota Corp. began producing rice flour in 2010 as an ingredient for bread and pasta to make up for declines in rice consumption.

After trial and error, the Kumamoto Prefecture-based company discovered that using paste instead of flour could be cost effective for bread and pasta production and turned its attention to brown rice, the bran outer layer of which is rich with nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and fiber.

The layer is polished off in the production of white rice.

Consequently, brown rice paste was born.

“Many people know brown rice is healthy, but don’t make it a part of their diet because its cooking process is rather troublesome. Also, brown rice is harder to chew and digest than white rice,” said Tadahiko Nishiyama, president of Nakakyushu — Kubota Co., which invented the paste.

Brown rice needs to be soaked in water for 12 hours before being cooked, but the paste allows consumers to skip this tedious process. Bread made from brown rice sold at Genkido, the company’s specialized bakery in Kumamoto, has attracted customers from inside and outside the prefecture since its opening in 2014, according to the operator of the bakery.

“The paste can be easily used and its particle size is as fine as starch, making the food made from it moist and doughy. It can also be used to make dressings and sauces,” Nishiyama explained.

In addition to the Kumamoto bakery, the company opened an outlet in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward in June. The restaurant, Genmai Genkido, features dishes made from the brown rice paste, including pasta, pancakes and canapes.

The new eatery targets health-conscious customers, especially those allergic or sensitive to wheat or proteins found in wheat, as its dishes are free of gluten, Nishiyama said.

“I liked the texture of the pasta,” said a female customer in her 30s who ate spaghetti Bolognese made from the brown rice paste.

Genmai Genkido aims to serve only brown-rice products and offers bread made from the grain, as it strives to become a known for its gluten-free dishes.

Gluten-free diets have been slowly gaining awareness in Japan, after former World No. 1 tennis player Novak Djokovic, who used to be sponsored by Uniqlo, revealed in his 2013 book that going gluten-free transformed his health and pushed him to the sport’s pinnacle.

Technically speaking, processing brown rice into paste has advantages.

When brown rice powder is made, bran containing fat and sugar content tends to stick to milling machines. The powder also oxidizes quickly, making it tougher to keep for long periods of time.

But when brown rice is made into paste, it doesn’t stick to machines. The product can then be frozen and kept for up to six months, meaning it can be shipped and widely distributed.

The Kumamoto company was eager to curb the decline in rice consumption, especially after 2011 government data showed annual spending on bread in households of two or more people exceeded that of rice for the first time in Japan.

“About 7 million tons of rice are produced yearly in Japan, while the country imports some 5 million tons of wheat for production of bread, pasta and other food items,” Nishiyama said. “If only 1 million tons of that wheat can be switched to rice, half of some 420,000 hectares of abandoned arable land in the country can be revived.”

According to 2015 government statistics, Japan had more than 1 million acres of deserted farmland.

The company has been procuring rice grown with limited use of pesticides and processing it at a factory in the prefecture. It sells the paste wholesale to companies and has promoted brown rice pasta in Singapore.

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