Tuesday, October 6, 2009


     Eaten hot or cold, at breakfast, lunch or dinner, and stuffed with any filling the inventive mind can imagine, the ubiquitous onigiri is Japan's answer to the sandwich. It's compact, portable, and when the filling is a protein, it might even count as a balanced meal. Housewives pack home made ones wrapped in foil for their salaryman husbands. Junior high school boys eat them as an afternoon snack as they commute from school to cram school. When I was an English teacher, the other resource teachers would always set up an assembly line after lunch to turn all the leftover rice into onigiri for the classroom teachers to have for dinner if they had to work overtime (which, of course, was the norm).
     It was from those teachers, plus a few TV shows and magazines, that I learned to make onigiri myself. It's easiest to turn the rice into a triangle shape without making a sticky mess if you first wrap it in saran wrap, but simply wetting the hands works almost as well. Unless you are unusually pain-tolerant, it's best to wait until the rice has cooled a bit before attempting to scoop it up and squeeze it, but it should still be warm. The word nigiru means "to grip," but you shouldn't really grip too hard - gentle pressure is all it takes for short-grained Japanese rice to come together. Turning the ball as you press it together creates the triangle shape, as the flattened palm of one hand forms one side and the crooked palm and fingers of the other form the other two sides. The filling is added at the beginning, before the gripping begins. Some people not only wet but also salt their hands to add flavor, and of course there are all kinds of add-ins consisting of shredding seaweed, sesame seeds, dehydrated egg, dehydrated fish, and so forth, which can be mixed in to color and flavor the rice from the start. Once the rice ball has been formed, it can either be left plain or wrapped in a sheet of nori, which comes already cut into the perfect size for this purpose.

     Though naturally homemade ones are best, especially when they're still warm, onigiri are sold at every supermarket and convenience store in a wide range of flavors and qualities. On the sad morning last month when I had to return Yuri to the airport, we were in too much of a hurry to have a sit-down lunch, and since he hadn't had a chance to eat onigiri yet on this trip, we decided to stop by a 7-11 and buy a last fast-food meal. Yuri got the grilled salmon above, a higher-scale option (the cheapest salmon onigiri just have flaked fish, not whole pieces), and his favorite spicy mentaiko, a type of fish eggs. I prefer my mentaiko cooked, which turns it chewy and salty without the spiciness, so I had one of those. Other common fillings include pickled plum, pickled vegetables, tuna with mayo, and even chicken or beef. The fish in onigiri is always cooked so that they can be eaten on the go without worrying about spoilage.
      It was a simple lunch, but perfectly oishii.

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