One hundred and one years ago last month, June 1908, the first shipload of Japanese immigrants landed in Brazil to fill jobs on coffee plantations. Thousands of shiploads later, the country is now home to 1.5 million Japanese immigrants and their descendants — the largest Japanese population outside of Japan.
Surely then, selling U.S. sushi rice in this market would be a simple proposition. After all, the United States produces short- and medium-grain rice of equal or better quality than that produced in Japan. But, after 100 years of immersion in Brazilian culture, the Japanese Brazilians have adopted a unique blend of the two cultures. Long-grain rice — grown in abundance in Brazil — is now included in most of the country's Japanese cuisine.
Although sushi purists stateside will cringe, long-grain rice is king in Brazil, a country that produces nearly 13 million metric tons of rice annually and has per capita rice consumption of 48kg (105.6 pounds, or about four times U.S. per capita consumption). Thus, a seemingly simple proposition presents itself as a great challenge for the USA Rice Federation, which is conducting a pilot program to market U.S. short- and medium-grain rice to the large Japanese foodservice sector here in São Paulo.
In June 2008, USA Rice launched a high-profile pilot program with great fanfare, serving 8,000 pieces of U.S. rice-made sushi at the official opening ceremonies of the Centennial Celebration of Japanese Immigration into Brazil. (See the June 11, 2008, issue of USA Rice Daily, http://www.usarice.com/doclib/122/3284.pdf.) U.S. rice was the only rice served at the ceremonies. Building on the attention garnered during that mammoth event, USA Rice is promoting U.S. rice for sushi during bi-weekly tastings inside Marukai, the city's leading wholesaler/retailer of local and imported products for Japanese cuisine. Marukai serves a high-volume foodservice clientele. Since the pilot program began, Marukai has imported five container loads of U.S. rice, an increase from zero before the program began.
In May, Marukai's number-one competitor, Casa Bueno, urged the USA Rice Federation to set-up tastings inside its store also. USA Rice gladly accepted the offer, and held its first U.S. rice promotion at Casa Bueno one Monday in May, a day when restaurants typically stock-up for the week.
Through the pilot program, USA Rice Federation promotes U.S. short- and medium-grain rice as “the true taste of Japan,” urging consumers and restaurants alike to “rescue” their traditional way of eating sushi. “Sushimen” who prepare sushi at the city's estimated 500 Japanese restaurants, are invited to attend workshops where they are given the opportunity to work with the U.S. rice. Indeed, most sushimen notice its benefits — its polished appearance, its superior texture which makes it easier to work with than long-grain rice, and, of course, its taste.
While the quality of the rice sells itself, price offers yet another challenge for U.S. exporters. With U.S. rice as the most expensive product in the market, how can U.S. rice compete with cheaper Uruguayan short-grain or the traditional Brazilian long-grain?
To address this challenge, USA Rice offers the words of Alberto Hideki Arata, owner of Sushi do Alberto, and a recent convert to using 100-percent U.S. rice in his establishment as a result of his participation in the pilot program. The sushimen hear his statement proclaiming that “the rice is not the most expensive ingredient on the menu. The fish is. If I am serving good fish and spending money on good fish, I should also offer the best rice I can find. And the best rice I can find is U.S. rice. I now use it exclusively in my restaurant.”
Arata reports that a 20-percent increase in his customers as a result of his better-tasting food, has helped offset the increased price he pays for U.S. rice. Still, in a price-sensitive market, where economic hardship is common, overcoming the aversion to higher U.S. prices will not be easy.
The USA Rice pilot program has also recently captured the attention of a local milling company, Lider Alimentos, which markets the country's top-selling Brazilian long-grain rice for the Japanese sector. Lider, which sells the brand, Arroz Guin, is currently testing samples of the U.S. Southern-grown Jupiter variety, as well as various California-grown varieties, with hopes of improving the quality of products it offers for the Japanese sector.
USA Rice is currently considering the future of the program. If the promotions continue, an essential step will be to get U.S. rice samples into the hands of restaurant owners and sushimen, and then let the quality speak for itself.