It is often said the Inuit have dozens of words to describe types of snow, and in Japan it is the same for rice. Now a collaborative effort is underway to refine and define the terminology used to describe the nation's dietary staple.

A national research center and a private company have begun working together to think up clever definitions to be used in a rice terminology dictionary in a bid to more accurately and descriptively catalog the myriad words that define rice's taste, aroma and texture in the Japanese language.

Rice producers and distributors are hoping by setting standards for common expressions that are often a little ambiguous, they can more accurately convey the "individuality" of products to consumers, such as "rice that has a sweet aroma, is fluffy yet firm with a strong umami flavor."

Undated photo shows "sensory evaluations" of rice conducted by the National Agricultural Research Institute in the past in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture. (Photo courtesy of NARO)(Kyodo)

In January, at the National Agriculture Food and Research Organization in Tsukuba city, Ibaraki Prefecture, food researcher Fumiyo Hayakawa and others were engaged in heated discussions in front of freshly cooked rice.

They tried to define terminology that best describes differences in rice firmness or graininess, for instance. Hayakawa's team is partnering with Itochu Food Sales and Marketing Co., a subsidiary of major trading house Itochu Corp., to create the dictionary.

NARO sells an agriculture technical encyclopedia with terms involving crops and cultivation, as well as management, distribution and marketing among other jargon. Its Japanese language texture terminology system describes various foods, including cooked white rice, shrimp, "udon" noodles, breads and more.

In production, distribution and sales, experts conduct "sensory evaluations" in which they judge quality based on aroma, taste and texture. The results are used to influence the development and purchasing of new rice varieties, as well as to promote products.

However, there has been concern that there is no uniformity in the recognition of expressions or that the same words are overused, resulting in less accurate rice evaluations.

Toshiya Amano, general manager of the rice division at Itochu Food Sales and Marketing, which sells milled rice to convenience stores and other retailers nationwide, gave an example of the shades of meaning in descriptions of rice that have been confusing to some consumers.

"For example, some people consider 'fresh rice' to mean 'sticky rice,'" Amano said.

However, since it was "unrealistic" to quantify all textures and aromas, the company sought a solution by beginning research with NARO in 2021.

Photo taken on Jan. 15, 2024, shows Fumiyo Hayakawa, a researcher in the food division of the National Agricultural Research Organization, smelling rice, in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture. (Kyodo)

First, a dozen researchers skilled in evaluation tasted 32 rice products and shared their impressions of their quality.

The taste tests involved trying more than 110 types of rice, such as freshly cooked, rice that had been cooked but left out for some time, convenience store rice balls and rice from packages for long-term storage.

More than 7,000 terms were gathered by seeking new expressions in more than 100 articles, including rice-related studies and rice cooker catalogs. Hayakawa said some of the descriptions are unique, such as "a taste like natto" (fermented soybeans) or "an aroma like boiled eggs."

"If we put them into a dictionary, we can pick up on characteristics that have been overlooked until now because they could not be contextualized," said Hayakawa, adding they also verified what processes render such distinct flavors.

They have narrowed down the words in the four categories of appearance, taste, aroma and texture to about 100 and are now in the process of defining them. The meaning of even standard terms such as "glossy" and "sweet aroma" are hard to convey, Hayakawa said.

Synonyms and antonyms are introduced, and supplements are added to provide context in evaluations.

The project is scheduled to be completed by the end of March 2025 and will later be released on NARO's website.

Hayakawa is enthusiastic about what the dictionary will have to offer people fond of rice in its various forms. "I want to make this a tool to convey the attractiveness of rice not only to evaluation experts but also to consumers," she said.

Related coverage:

FEATURE: AI plays cupid as Japanese authorities try to boost marriage rate

FEATURE: New documentary gives a human face to disability in Japan

FEATURE: India's "cremation king" helps to bring salvation in modern times