In April 2023, a Gold Coast business was awarded Australia’s premier food prize, the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW (RAS NSW) President’s Medal.
It was a huge honour for Rice Culture, a small single owner business that makes organic miso by hand using traditional methods, when their Organic Vintage Miso was judged the best food product in Australia. Presented at Sydney’s Royal Easter Show, the President’s Medal is a unique and highly esteemed competition that not only “…assesses taste but also explores the overall production cycle, from its commercial success and environmental footprint to its social impact.”
Winning the RAS’s 16th Annual President’s Medal places Rice Culture at the top of over 4,000 wine, dairy and fine food producers from around Australia who entered the competition.
It’s a win that pays homage to an ancient culture, a drive for excellence, and a belief that living food can fuel a healthy life.
Rice Culture is a humble business owned by Japanese-born Gold Coast mother Tomoko Onuki, operated from a small industrial unit in Carrara. Tomoko’s miso making is a labour of love driven by respect and integrity, with every part of the process completed by hand with the help of a small team of Japanese women.
Using recipes that are more than 1,000 years old, Rice Culture’s miso is the coming together of Japanese tradition and organic ingredients sourced from Tomoko’s new homeland, Australia. One of the few commercial miso makers in Queensland, Rice Culture follows a time and labour-intensive process involving steaming, inoculation, and fermentation, transforming soybeans, salt and rice into miso. The most exclusive of Rice Culture’s products, Organic Vintage Miso, has been aged at least five years.
Interestingly, the story of Australia’s most highly awarded miso began with a disaster. Revisiting Japan in 2012 with her friend, Tomoko realised that due to the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster (caused by the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake) there were health implications from eating imported Japanese food products at the time. With miso being a staple of Japanese cuisine, the pair decided to begin making their own miso on their return to Australia. They attended classes and brought back vital equipment from Japan, opening their own business in 2012.
Using only local, non-GMO and organic ingredients, the duo worked at perfecting their techniques. Making koji was the first essential part in their process.
Koji is a fermented organic rice product that has been used by Japanese cooks for centuries to make everything from soy sauce and sake to miso and mirin. At present, koji-related industry forms 1 percent of Japan’s GDP.
A living probiotic food producing over 3,000 enzymes, koji is made by innoculating steamed rice with a mould called Aspergillus oryzae (Japan’s ‘national fungus’) and leaving it to ferment. The end product, koji, is mixed with cooked soybeans and salt to make miso, the length of its fermentation time varying between one month (sweet white shiro miso) and years (for vintage miso). The longer the fermentation time, the darker the miso.
Beginning with their original miso, Rice Culture soon gained recognition for the excellence of their products, receiving their first award in 2016.
Tomoko continued the business by herself from 2018, expanding Rice Culture’s range of products to include different miso and miso soup varieties, seven in total, gathering accolades along the way in state and national competitions.
Topping the cache of 35 awards won by the business, the President’s medal is the crowning glory of Rice Culture’s success.
But while Tomoko, a former documentary director, translator and researcher is both surprised and honoured by the award, it is the chance to change lives that is her driving force rather than the fame.
“Our business is about sharing traditional wisdom passed down from our ancestors and delivering hand-crafted miso and koji for gut health,” Tomoko tells me. “Sometimes innovation means going back to old traditions,” she adds.
Originally introduced to Japan from China, it is estimated that 75% of Japanese people consume miso daily. Prebiotic and probiotic, vegan, gluten-free, containing all essential amino acids, miso is a great source of B vitamins and minerals and is rich in antioxidants. It can be used as both a condiment and medicine believed to aid digestion, revitalise the blood, detox the body and relieve pain. It has been scientifically proven to be one of the most important fermented foods to aid gut health, a central core of our well-being.
Rice Culture’s miso is used in several of our finest restaurants, its fine sweet flavour essential to the creation of dishes by our top chefs.
HOTA’s Executive Chef, Dayan Hartill-Law, says: “I was lucky enough to meet Tomoko when I was doing R & D for Palette Restaurant. We took a deep dive into Koji and just how magic it is. We also did a tasting of Tomoko’s miso, and she was kind and generous enough to allow us access to her most aged miso, which is now 112 months old. We share this vintage miso with every single guest who joins us at Palette. It is great privilege for us to be able to have such an amazing and highly complex ingredient in our pantry.”
Not content to rest following her success, Tomoko and her team are busier than ever. She even has plans to extend her range to include tamari (a vegan soy sauce substitute) and amakaze, a ‘superdrink’ dating back to ancient Japan.
Meanwhile, Tomoko’s unique miso is available for anyone to purchase via the Rice Culture website. If we follow the advice of Hippocrates, the father of medicine, “Let food be thy medicine…” it’s unlikely that any other ‘medicine’ will ever abound with umami-filled deliciousness as much as Tomoko’s miso does.
Rice Culture, 4/3 Keller Crescent, Carrara, QLD 4211
NOTE: Some photos credited to Rice Culture. Photo of President’s Medal winner Tomoko Onuki with Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC KC, Governor of New South Wales credited to the RAS NSW.