Okomesan: the Italian rice that’s approved for sushi by the Japanese “rice sommelier”

Jun 28 2016, 09:24 | by Livia Montagnoli

Hajme Morimoto landed in Italy over thirty years ago. His line of work soon specialized in rice commerce, with a pro twist: he selects varieties grown in the Lomellina paddies and transforms them in a 2 million business 

Italy and Japan, by way of Lomellina

If you’re seeking to find out all about rice, Lomellina is the place. This is where 30 years ago – in the evocative landscaped rice paddies that straddle Piedmont and Lombardy in the provinces of Vercelli, Novara and Pavia – Hajme Morimoto arrived. The native Japanese and Italy resident is the perfect example of cultural and gastronomic crossover. Morimoto’s passion for rice starts at an early age, when faced with adapting his alimentary habits in Italy in a completely different agricultural setting. In short, how can the best rice suited for sushi be sourced in Italian rice cultivations? This query was answered by Mr Morimoto after intense research over the last decade. The results came with the birth of Italpo Enterprise, a family business located in Albonese (Pavia) managed by the Japanese rice cultivator with his wife Chikako. The idea is offering mutually beneficial value to the Italy and Japan rice commerce. A valid reference point for both the Italian market and for the European one, and for wholesale, catering and retail, and supplying large part of the Japanese dining scene. This brings the added advantage of abating import costs.

Italian rice for sushi

The universe of rice is a lot more complex than it may appear. The varieties are many, each with varying degrees of quality and yield. So possessing a “rice sommelier” label does make a difference. Hajme Morimoto is able to single out the best rice variety based on the rigorous parameters for properly crafted sushi. Above all: stickiness – therefore the ability to release a significant amount of starch – so that the rice can be compacted easily for shaping perfect maki and onigiri. Like any tasting master, the actual degustation plays a key role. Only through repeated tasting was Mr Morimoto able to select the two varieties that most could meet the needs of Japanese cuisine. These are both cultivated in Italy but belong to the japonica family, the varietals in question are Originario (in Italy we use it for minestrone!) and Selenio. In common these two varieties  have short, rounded grains. In order to maintain high quality standards, Morimoto purchases the raw grains and then uses sophisticated Japanese machinery to treat it before final testing. This is a key step in transforming rice in “sushi rice” the so called Okomesan. For the last twenty years, every day Morimoto continues in his quest to select the best cultivations – one example is Riseria Vignola in Balzola. From Selenio variety rice it creates okomesan directly, in the European version that more closely resembles the Japanese koshihikari. He carefully supervises all phases of refinement and paddy maintenance and finally purchases the rice to be sold on international markets. The business generates numbers above two million Euro. 

The next generation. WellKome in Milano

While many Italian businesses are copycatting the specialized sushi rice cultivation, Morimoto sees the family fine dining gene in a cultural collaboration with his and Chikako’s daughter Sari. She was born in Italy and raised in the rice paddies of Lomellina learning all the secrets of rice. She is now at the helm of WellKome, a small bistro and Japanese cuisine lab located in the Cinque giornate area in Milan. The place opened a year ago with a menu that ranges from onigiri to yakitori, by way of katsudon, and presenting many traditional and authentic Japanese dishes as well as cocktails made with umeshu and sakè. On sale there is clearly also papa Morimoto’s rice

by Livia Montagnoli
translated by Eleonora Baldwin


Italpo Enterprise | Albonese (PV) | www.italpo.it

Wellkome | Milan | via Bezzecca, 1 | tel. 02 36572402 | www.well-kome.com

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