• 2023.05.01
  • Staple Foods
One of the questions fellow Japanese visitors to Spain often ask me is “What is the staple food in Spain?” It is simpler to reply, “Bread!” but actually the explanation more grounded in reality is probably that bread feels more like a supplement to the main dish, that it is a side dish to make it easier to eat the main items, including meats, fish, vegetables, beans, and so on. Most Spanish people even eat bread as an accompaniment to paella, Spain’s national rice dish. They double up on carbohydrates, something everyone loves.

The fact is that the only businesses that operate 365 days a year are said to be bakeries and funeral parlors, so there is no doubt this food is essential to the daily lives of Spaniards, yet, if you think of a staple food essentially as a carbohydrate (sugar and fiber) and the most important source of energy in your diet, there would be some doubt about whether bread really was a staple food. Even judging from the proportion of its consumption, to the Spanish, bread fulfils nothing more than an important supporting role at meals.

In contrast, I’m sure the whole country would agree that the staple food in Japan is rice. The essence of Japanese cooking could well be the developing and devising of ways of making rice more delicious. The side dishes that don’t go with rice are probably foreign dishes, and the menus at so-called Western restaurants and hotel restaurants are probably arrangements of foreign dishes made to suit rice. So they ask, “Would you like rice or bread?” right.

The practises, habits, and so on that we learn from early to late childhood remain unchanged even over our later years, and in that sense, people say “What is learned in the cradle is carried to the grave.” I have spent more than two thirds of my life in Spain, I have become thoroughly used to life here, the fact that I am not originally from here affords me a carefreeness and a bit of leeway in many situations, and virtually no stress in my daily life, yet, I certainly have unforgettable memories of the Japanese food that I became familiar with up until my adolescence.

There was only one Japanese restaurant in Madrid when I started living here, in my days as an overseas student. But I was a poor student, little by little using up the valuable foreign currency I had brought with me, so it was something out of my reach. When I was homesick for the taste of rice or soy sauce, I would eat weirdly red-colored sweet and sour pork, spring rolls mostly filled with cabbage, or fried rice with scrambled eggs, thinly sliced carrots, and chopped scallions at a super cheap Chinese restaurant in downtown Madrid and be carried away by feelings of nostalgia for home. After all this time, “ochazuke” (tea over cooked rice) of oolong tea over Sichuan pickles on non-sticky, non-Japanese rice is still a nostalgic memory for me.

In those days of hard study with little money, I found on the shelves of my local grocery store a small bottle of Kikkoman soy sauce, which I snapped up in my overwhelming nostalgia. While I was at it, I got rice and eggs and raced back to my lodgings to make raw egg on rice. The moment I took the first mouthful brought me visions of home, Japan. I’m talking about a long time ago, when they only sold Chinese soy sauce, which was pitch black, very salty, and lacking in flavor. I reconfirmed then my gratitude for the deliciousness of Japanese soy sauce, of course, but also for rice, and ever since, I have continued the discipline of rice cooking.

Photo 1

You can cook rice in an ordinary pot, but you have to constantly keep a watch on it while it’s cooking, so an electric rice cooker is more convenient of course. Photo 1 shows the rice cooker I have regularly used from the days when I was stuck in a steelworks in the north on a long-term assignment in the 1980s. It is still in active service and the only thing I have replaced was a broken power plug.

Photo 2

Photo 3

Since I got the “2-go” (300 g) rimmed pot for cooking rice in Photo 2, I have only used the electric cooker for cooking seasoned rice and the rimmed pot for cooking plain white rice. The earthenware pot in photo 3 makes exquisitely flavored scorched rice [on the bottom], and the rice it makes is beautifully lustrous.

Photo 4

Photo 4 shows the rice polishing machine I have used for some 20 years. It is not at all unusual in Japan to cook freshly polished rice in a rimmed or earthenware pot so that it scorches [on the bottom] and to use the bran produced when you polish brown rice to make “nukazuke” (pickles in bran), but here in Spain, it feels like a modest luxury. At times like that I crave natto (fermented soybeans).

Photo 5

So, photo 5 shows a yogurt maker. I use its fermentation program, which maintains 42 degrees for 24 hours, adding soybeans (readily obtainable at my local supermarket) to natto bacillus brought from Japan, to enjoy homemade natto. You get an amazing 30 kg of natto from 3 g of natto bacillus. So, freshly cooked rice from freshly polished rice grains, nukazuke, natto, and raw egg complete the lineup for Japanese breakfast. While Spain is in what they call Western Europe, it is furthest to the west, and my eating habits here remind me of my distant home: “As the boy, so the man.”
And, as usual, I have gotten off the topic of Spain. My apologies. Please disregard this as the all-too-familiar babbling of a Japanese man who has lived overseas for a long time.

Although this is a redundant addition, with the current worldwide boom in Japanese food, you can get anything even here in Madrid, from Japanese rice, miso, soy sauce (in many different varieties, like reduced-salt, tamari, teriyaki, gluten-free, and organic), kombu, nori, tofu, and natto, to vegetables like Chinese cabbage, garlic chives, giant white radish, shiitake mushrooms, lotus root, Chinese yam, taro, and ginger. Even Japanese sweet shops have started appearing recently, so I would say that the only Japanese food you can’t get in Spain might be “tessa” (blowfish sashimi).


  • Susumu Yamada
  • JobSpanish and Japanese Translation

It’s been almost 37 years since I received a residence permit and work permit from the Spanish government and paid my first tax and social insurance premiums. Now that I’m at that age where I will soon go and register at the senior human resources center, I’m grateful to have this opportunity to introduce you all to this country that has taken care of me these many years.

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