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One of our reporters recently drew the enviable assignment of visiting this year’s Nippon no Umai, an annual event sponsored by Kirin that brings the best of Japan’s regional delicacies together under one roof. With so many tasty options on display, those of us not lucky enough to attend the tasting session, held at the super swanky Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, would have to settle for living vicariously through our correspondent’s report after he returned.

We were a little underwhelmed when we asked what he’d eaten, and his answer was “white rice with salt!” but we soon came to understand why he was looking quite so content.

Japan’s mountainous topography and numerous civil wars have meant that despite being a compact country, until the nation’s relatively recent modernization and political unification, the food cultures of different regions evolved largely separately from one another. When coupled with the societal value placed on tradition and doing things the proper way, almost every locality has a culinary specialty it’s considered to do better than anywhere else.

The 2013 Nippon no Umai event featured several of these, including high-grade domestic beef from Shimane and Sendai Prefectures that are stepping up their efforts to wrest away Kobe’s crown as king of the cow meat. Representatives from Tokushima Prefecture in Shikoku showed up with their home’s delectable awa-odori chicken, as did delegates from Ishikawa and Kochi Prefectures with prized yellowtail sashimi and seared bonito.

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And what did southern Kumamoto Prefecture bring to this all-out gastronomic rumble?

Salted rice balls.

Seriously? You expect people to save room for white rice with salt when they could be enjoying gourmet seafood such as abalone from Mie, or even death-defying fugu blowfish from Yamaguchi?

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As time went by, though, our reporter’s disdain for the Kumamoto group’s apathy transitioned to pity at just how completely outgunned they seemed. Since a saint-like level of empathy is one of the most important criteria in becoming a member of the RocketNews24 team (surpassed only by the need for a pleasing smell), he decided that he could try just a nibble. After walking over to their booth, he picked up a plate with an unimpressive-looking rice ball on it, took a bite, and immediately realized he owed everyone in Kumamoto an apology.

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When people in Japan think of where the tastiest rice comes from, Niigata and Akita Prefectures usually spring to mind. Kumamoto doesn’t really have much of a reputation for growing Japan’s favorite grain, but the salted rice balls their representatives brought to the event were nothing short of fantastic. “If I’d known they were so good, I would have made one the first thing I ate,” our reporter told us.

What made these rice balls so great was the special kind of rice used. Among the varieties of rice available in Japan, koshi hikari is generally held to be the best-tasting. This variety was crossbred with hino hikari, a type of rice grown in Kumamoto and awarded the prefecture’s highest award for flavor in 2001, to produce a new breed called Mori no Kuma-san, or “bear from the forest”, from which the Kumamoto group’s salted rice balls were formed.

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Although not nearly as well-known as koshi hikari, Mori no Kuma-san is no less delicious, with each kernel cooking up soft and fluffy. The rice has a delicate sweetness that spreads through the mouth as you chew, and combines with the added salt for a near-perfect harmony of flavors.

So on behalf of RocketNews24, we’re sorry for ever doubting you, Kumamoto. Here’s hoping we get to see you again at next year’s event, and that you bring back the same tasty treats.

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Photos: RocketNews24
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