(THE JAPAN NEWS/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - "White rice doesn't have much flavour. I hardly even eat it - I prefer to eat many side dishes."
Such were the sentiments of a 31-year-old female company employee in Sumida Ward, Tokyo, who had eaten the side dishes in a bento she had bought for lunch. She ate a little of the untouched rice after adding salt.
In her childhood, the woman was pushed to eat the white rice provided in school lunches, although she does not recall ever being scolded at home for not eating it.
"Sometimes it's a problem when I have a meal with business clients," she said. "I worry what others might think of a Japanese person who doesn't like rice. But I just don't like it."
A 32-year-old female company employee in Hino, Tokyo, is worried about her four-year-old son, who does not eat much rice. He says he likes it, but he eats the side dishes first.
Her son eats rice and side dishes alternately only when he is told to do so, but goes back to consuming only the side dishes when his mother is not looking.
Japanese are increasingly moving away from rice. Annual consumption per capita, which was 118kg in fiscal 1962, had fallen to 54kg in fiscal 2016. This is believed to be the result of the diversification of staple foods to include such things as bread and noodles.
"Recently, there's been an increase in the number of people with an aversion to white rice because they say it doesn't have much flavour, which is surprising," said guest Professor Nobuko Iwamura at Taisho University who has been researching household meals for 20 years.
According to her research, rice that has been flavoured, such as mixed rice, fried rice and rice served with stews, comprised nearly 50 per cent of the rice served at dinners in 2014 and 2015. That figure was at 30 per cent about 10 years ago.
"I think the reason for the aversion to white rice is that people no longer chew it well," Prof Iwamura said.
Saliva contains an enzyme that turns starch into sugar, so by chewing thoroughly, the sweet flavour comes through.
According to research by Shigeru Saito, former director of the Japanese Society for Mastication Science and Health Promotion, before World War II, people chewed their food 1,420 times during a meal, which lasted about 22 minutes. Now, however, they chew 620 times and spend about 11 minutes eating.
"In the past, a big bowl of rice was eaten with small portions of salty side dishes and miso soup, and that would fill you up," said Nami Fukutome, an expert on cooking culture. "But now, the accompanying dish has become the main part of the meal. Soft foods that don't require much chewing have become popular, with hamburg steaks leading the way. There may be some people who think it's unnecessary to eat white rice that isn't flavoured."
The concept of "kochu chomi" - chewing plain white rice and side dishes alternately and mixing them in one's mouth - is a characteristic of Japanese cuisine that appears to be declining. A good example of such a side dish is teriyaki, which is made with soya sauce and sugar.
"For kochu chomi, it's necessary to have proper dining etiquette, such as properly placing tableware and holding bowls," said Professor Noriko Toyama of developmental psychology at Waseda University. "For those who've never experienced this, rice becomes a food with no flavour. The number of people who don't sense there is any flavour in rice is likely to increase."
Some childcare facilities have become aware of the problem. At Funabashi Asahi Kodomoen in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, teachers and dietitians make the rounds of the classroom during lunch time, guiding kids to eat side dishes and rice alternately and chew their food well.
Once a month, it sets aside time to teach such things as table manners.
"Some children eat only the side dishes and leave the rice when they first join us," said the facility's head Satomi Takahashi. "However, most of them eat rice in time with our guidance."
Yellowtail grilled with teriyaki sauce
This is a classic Japanese dish with a sweet and savoury taste that goes well with white rice.
2 fillets of yellowtail
Teriyaki sauce (1 Tbs soya sauce, 1 Tbs mirin, 1 Tbs sake, ½ Tbs sugar)
1. Wipe the yellowtail with a paper towel to remove excess moisture. Mix the seasonings.
2. Heat a frying pan and cook the fillets at medium heat. When the surface begins to brown, turn and cook the other side.
3. Wipe the pan with a paper towel to remove excess fat. Add teriyaki sauce and shake the pan while simmering to allow the sauce to coat the fish as the mixture thickens.