How To Eat Rice Porridge (And Cook It, Too)

How To Eat Rice Porridge (And Cook It, Too)

Join Chef Hisao Nakahigashi on a morning foraging trip in the valleys and mountains north of Kyoto, where he collects wild greens and vegetables from family farmers. Discover the secrets of making and enjoying rice porridge, known as okayu, along with its health benefits. Experience the beautiful rural corner of Japan and its wonderful produce at the michi no eki in Ohara. Learn about the traditional mackerel road, Route 477, and how a farmer uses ducks to naturally rid his rice fields of insects without pesticides.

Visiting Kyoto recently, Tadashi and I rendezvoused with Chef Hisao Nakahigashi at 7 a.m., hopping in his van and setting off for the valleys and mountains north of the city, where he heads every day to forage for wild greens and collect vegetables from family farmers. I've profiled Mr. Nakahigashi on this blog (and for an upcoming story, too); he's a revered chef and an incredibly gracious man whom I greatly admire and respect. It's been a privilege to join him on his morning excursions to the countryside through the seasons, which are always such an education for me.

We made our way along Route 477, a narrow country road that was once a leg of the old saba kaido, Mr. Nakahigashi explained, the historic "mackerel road," along which salted fish was transported from the Sea of Japan to Kyoto during the Edo Period. Winding up a fog-swept mountain through dense cedar forest speckled with the brilliant red autumn leaves of momiji maple, we arrived in a tiny hamlet called Momoi (which had, surprisingly, a very rustic inn; would be an interesting sojourn). First order of business, picking up nameko and shiitake mushrooms from an old farmer there. Second order of business, tasting this man's unforgettable raw honey, and drinking tea with him and his wife. From there, we visited two farmers in the Ohara valley, stopped by a hillside to forage for wild strawberries, and picked up a chicken from the chef's own flock, which he keeps in the area.

So what do Mr. Nakahigashi's rounds have to do with rice porridge?

In the middle of the morning we pulled into the michi no eki of the village of Ohara, just north of Kyoto. This particular farmer's market has a small cafeteria attached to it. Everyone there was enjoying the same thing for breakfast: rice porridge, or okayu. We ordered. The rice was steaming, accented with a tangy homemade umeboshi picked with shiso. It was delicious, the rice extremely fresh and delicate, but, I thought, way too hot to eat. Then I noticed Mr. Nakahigashi merrily downing his bowl without a hitch. How'd he manage?

The chef explained: First, hold the bowl in the palm of your hand. Bring it up to your lips, then tilt it. Now gently skim off the coolest, top layer of the okayu with your chopsticks and guide into your gullet. Repeat. Repeat again. And again. You get the picture...

What about preparing okayu, I asked? It's extremely simple, as you'd imagine. In a saucepan, combine 5 to 10 parts water to 1 part rice (washed and drained), depending on the consistency you desire (the cafeteria used 7 parts water to 1 part rice for its version). Cook gently over low heat without covering or mixing until the rice is tender. That's it. With fresh rice (you can buy new crop Japanese-style short grain California rice in the U.S., which would work perfectly), the flavor is simple and lovely, especially with the umeboshi. Besides breakfast, I've read that okayu is an antidote to stomachaches, colds, even hangovers.

So there you have it, the secrets of okayu revealed.

By the way, I believe you can take Bus 17 from Kyoto to Ohara. Worth the outing, such beautiful rural corner of Japan, and the michi no eki has wonderful produce, and okayu, too, of course.

Check out some photos below. The man holding the duck is a farmer who uses ducks to naturally rid his rice fields of insects without pesticides, which at the same time fattens the birds for sale. Fascinating.