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Korean Rice (Mepssal)

by Emily
Rice in triangle kimbap

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Like many countries in East Asia, traditional South Korean meals predominantly center around a bowl of rice. The significance of rice in Korean food culture cannot be overemphasized or dramatized. Not only is it a daily stable served at most meals, but it is also part of the cultural identity of South Korea stemming from hardships, survival, and social resilience. 

If you wish to learn about Korean culture, it is important to know about rice. Here, I will write about ‘mepssal,’ the type of rice used most commonly at a Korean dinner table. People use rice to make dishes famous Korean dishes such as bibimbap (비빔밥), jumeokbap (주먹밥), kimbap (김밥), and more. 

Rice Classification (Types of Rice): 

Before we learn about rice in Korea, I want to list the three many classifications of rice. Generally, you can place different varieties of rice in three different groups: long-grain, medium-grain, and short-grain. These classifications come from the length-to-width ratio when cooked. Within these classifications, you also need to be aware of the starchiness of different rice varieties to get the desired texture and flavor when cooked. 

Handmade rice balls next to kimchi
Short-Grain Rice Used to Make Jumeokbap.

Long-Grain Rice: 

While it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between medium and short-grain rice, long-grain rice can easily be recognized because of the lengthy and narrow grains. When cooked, the rice gains a nice fluffy texture. The grains naturally remain separated from one another. You will be able to pick up an individual grain separate from the others. 

Examples of Long-Grain Rice: Jasmine rice, Basmati rice, American Long-grain white or brown rice. 

Medium-Grain Rice:

Unlike long-grain rice, medium rice is only 2-to-3 times longer than it is wide. Further, when cooked, the grains become tender and moist from the higher starch content. This starch content also causes the grains to stick together a bit more. 

Examples of Medium-Grain Rice: Arborio rice, Valencia rice, Bomba rice, Wuchang rice 

Cheese kimbap on a yellow tray.
Short-Grain Rice Used in Cheese Kimbap

Short-Grain Rice:

Finally, short-grain rice is classified by the short grains that are only a bit longer than they are wide. The grains cling together when cooked without becoming mushy or watery. The short-grain varieties have the highest starch content out of the three classifications. 

Like I stated above, people often do not differentiate between medium and short-grain rice. Most Korean and Japanese Japonica rice varieties belong in the short-grain category. That being said, ‘Japanese style’ and ‘Korean style’ rice sold in most western grocery stores are actually medium-grain and are grown in California. 

Now that we classified rice, let’s learn about ‘mepssal’ used in Korean cooking!

A bowl of Korean kimchi fried rice.
Short-Grain Rice Used in Kimchi Fried Rice

What Is Korean Rice: Mepssal (멥쌀)? 

‘Mepssal’ refers to the kind of rice people in South Korea use for their everyday rice-based savory meals. In English, people refer to ‘mepssal’ as uncooked non-glutinous short-grain rice. 

‘Mepssal’ differs from ‘Chapssal’ (찹쌀), which refers to the extremely sticky short-grain sweet rice or glutinous short-grain rice. People use the ‘chapssal’ varieties of rice to make rice cakes or desserts in South Korea. 

What Varieties of Rice Should I Buy When Cooking Korean Food? 

In South Korea and Japan, people cultivate the short-grained varieties of Japonica rice, which gains a slightly sticky texture when cooked. This is because of the amount of starch naturally present in certain short-grain Japonica varieties. While both countries use the same varieties of rice, they cultivate and prepare them in vastly different methods resulting in a difference in rice flavor and texture. If you are interested in learning the complicated history of South Korea and Japan relations when it comes to rice, you can read about it here

Note: Not all Japonica varieties are short-grain. For example, Wuchang rice is a Chinese medium-grain variety of Japonica rice. Calrose is another type of medium-grain Japonica rice developed in 1948 and is now a generic term for California medium-grain Japonicas. 

A bowl of white Korean rice under soy marinated soft boiled eggs and hot peppers.
Short-Grain Rice Under Mayak Korean Soy-Marinated Eggs

Unfortunately, most westerners do not know the differences in varieties of rice like they do in many East Asian countries. When buying rice for Korean dishes in western grocery stores, you need to look for short-grained rice with a higher starch content than long-grain rice. Outside of Korea, I recommend buying ‘Calrose style’ varieties. While not exactly the same, it is consistently available in grocery stores for an affordable price. Not only that, it is a good option for those looking for a decent and consistently delicious bowl of rice. 

Note: I do not recommend buying nondescript ‘sushi rice’ in the grocery store. Often, rice labeled as ‘sushi rice’ is not coincidentally the same type of rice from brand to brand. This can alter the cooking times as well as the starchiness and flavor of the rice. Instead, if you do buy ‘sushi rice’ make sure it is of the short-grain Japonica or Calrose varieties. 

We Hope You Enjoyed Learning About Korean Rice (Mepssal)

In the end, we hope you enjoyed learning about Korean rice known as ‘mepssal.’ We have already cooked with this ingredient often on our blog. In the future, we will cook with it some more. 

If you would like to read more about cooking, you can find further recipes on our blog. We listed some of our favorite Carving A Journey rice-based recipes below! For reference, many recipes are influenced by our blended Korean and Southern heritage.

Further Carving A Journey Recipes:

If you have any questions or comments, you can also email us at [email protected].

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