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International News


Itís not as world-famous as ramen or sushi. But the humble onigiri is soul food in Japan.

COMFORT FOOD. Yosuke Miura makes a rice ball with pieces of grilled salmon at Onigiri Asakusa Yadoroku, Tokyoís oldest onigiri restaurant. The word "onigiri" became part of the Oxford English Dictionary this year. The humble sticky-rice ball, a mainstay of Japanese food, has entered the global lexicon. See page 15 to view an onigiri recipe. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

SOOTHING STAPLE. A variety of onigiri ó rice balls ó are seen on a plate at a Taro Tokyo Onigiri shop in Tokyo. The humble sticky-rice ball, a mainstay of Japanese food, has entered the global lexicon. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)

From The Asian Reporter, V34, #7 (July 1, 2024), pages 3 & 15.

Itís not as world-famous as ramen or sushi. But the humble onigiri is soul food in Japan.

By Yuri Kageyama

The Associated Press

TOKYO ó The word "onigiri" became part of the Oxford English Dictionary this year, proof that the humble sticky-rice ball and mainstay of Japanese food has entered the global lexicon.

The rice balls are stuffed with a variety of fillings and typically wrapped in seaweed. Itís an everyday dish that epitomizes "washoku" ó the traditional Japanese cuisine that was designated a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage a decade ago.

Onigiri is "fast food, slow food, and soul food," says Yusuke Nakamura, who heads the Onigiri Society, a trade group in Tokyo.

Fast because you can find it even at convenience stores. Slow because it uses ingredients from the sea and mountains, he said. And soul food because itís often made and consumed among family and friends. No tools are needed, just gently cupped hands.

"Itís also mobile, food on the move," he said.

Onigiri in its earliest form is believed to go back at least as far as the early 11th century; itís mentioned in Murasaki Shikibuís The Tale of Genji. It appears in Akira Kurosawaís classic 1954 film Seven Samurai as the ultimate gift of gratitude from the farmers.

What exactly goes into onigiri?

The sticky characteristic of Japanese rice is key.

Whatís placed inside is called "gu," or filling. A perennial favorite is umeboshi, or salted plum. Or perhaps mentaiko, which is hot, spicy roe. But in principle, anything can be placed inside onigiri, even sausages or cheese.

Then the ball is wrapped with seaweed. Even one nice big onigiri would make a meal, although many people would eat more.

Some stand by the classic onigiri

Yosuke Miura runs Onigiri Asakusa Yadoroku, a restaurant founded in 1954 by his grandmother. Yadoroku, which roughly translates to "good-for-nothing," is named for her husband, Miuraís grandfather. It claims to be one of the oldest onigiri restaurants in Tokyo.

There are just two tables. The counter has eight chairs. Takeout is an option, but you still have to stand in line.

"Nobody dislikes onigiri," said Miura, smiling behind a wooden counter. In a display case before him are bowls of gu, including salmon, shrimp, and miso-flavored ginger. "Itís nothing special basically. Every Japanese has 100% eaten it."

Also a classical flautist, Miura sees onigiri as a score handed down from his grandmother, one which he will reproduce faithfully.

"In classical music, you play whatís written on the music sheet. Onigiri is the same," he says. "You donít try to do something new."

Yadoroku is tucked away in the quaint old part of Tokyo called Asakusa. It opens at 11:30am and closes when it runs out of rice, usually within the hour. Then it opens again for dinner. The most expensive onigiri costs 770 yen ($4.90), with salmon roe, while the cheapest is 319 yen ($2). That includes miso soup. No reservations are taken.

Although onigiri can be round or square, animal or star-shaped, Miuraís standard is the triangular ones. He makes them to order, right before your eyes, taking just 30 seconds for each.

He places the hot rice in triangular molds that look like cookie cutters, rubs salt on his hands, and then cups the rice ó three times to gently firm the sides. The crisp nori, or seaweed, is wrapped like a kerchief around the rice, with one end up so it stays crunchy.

The first bite is just nori and rice. The gu comes with your second bite.

"The Yadoroku onigiri will not change until the end of Earth," Miura said with a grin.

Others want to experiment

Miyuki Kawarada runs Taro Tokyo Onigiri, which has four outlets in Japan. She is eyeing Los Angeles, too, and then Paris. Her vision: to make onigiri "the worldís fast food."

The name Taro was chosen because itís common, the Japanese equivalent of John or Michael. Onigiri, she says, has mass appeal because itís simple to make, is gluten-free, and is versatile.

And other Japanese foods like ramen and sushi have found worldwide popularity, she notes.

At her cheerful, modern shop, workers wearing khaki-colored company t-shirts busily prepare the gu and rice balls in a kitchen visible behind the cash register. The shop only serves takeout.

Kawaradaís onigiri has lots of gu on top, for colorful toppings, instead of inside. Each one comes with a separately wrapped piece of nori to be placed around it right before you eat.

Her gu gets adventurous. Cream cheese is mixed with a pungent Japanese pickle called "iburigakko," for instance, and each onigiri costs 250 yen ($1.60). Spam and egg onigiri costs 300 yen ($1.90); the one adorned with several types of "kombu," or edible kelp, called "Dashi Punch X3," costs 280 yen ($1.80).

"Onigiri is the infinite universe. We donít get tied down in tradition," said Kawarada.

The customers

Asami Hirano, who stopped in while walking her dog, took a long time choosing her meal at Taro Tokyo Onigiri on a recent day.

"Iíve always loved onigiri, since I was a kid. My mother made them," she said.

Nicolas Foo Cheung, a Frenchman who works nearby as an intern, had been to Taro Tokyo Onigiri a few times before and thinks itís a good deal. "Itís simple food," he said.

Miki Yamada, a food promoter, intentionally calls onigiri "omusubi," the other common word for rice balls, because the latter more clearly refers to the idea of connections. She says her lifeís mission is to bring people together, especially since the triple earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters hit her familyís rice farm in Fukushima, northeastern Japan, in 2011.

"By facing up to omusubi, I have encountered a spirituality, a basic Japanese-ness of sorts," she said.

There is nothing better, she said, than plain Aizu rice omusubi with a pinch of salt and utterly nothing inside.

"It energizes you. Itís that ultimate comfort food," she said.

* * *

SIMPLE & SATISFYING. Onigiri is a ball of rice with something inside, similar to how two slices of bread with something in between makes a sandwich. Pictured are the ingredients to easily make onigiri. (AP Photo/Yuri Kageyama)

From The Asian Reporter, V34, #7 (July 1, 2024), page 15.

A simple recipe for onigiri, or Japanese rice balls, with salted plums

By Yuri Kageyama

The Associated Press

TOKYO ó Onigiri is a ball of rice with something inside, similar to how two slices of bread with something in between makes a sandwich. In the same way that just about every American has made and eaten a sandwich, so too have most Japanese eaten onigiri.

A Tokyo correspondent for The Associated Press is sharing her basic onigiri recipe. It uses umeboshi (salted Japanese plums), but what you put inside can be just about anything ó fish, meat, veggies, even cheese ó as long as it fits and tastes good. Feel free to experiment.

Shape your onigiri into the standard triangular form, or whatever fun image strikes your fancy. Wrap it with nori (dried seaweed). You can use one big strip of nori or several bite-size pieces.

There are no fixed rules. Some people sprinkle their onigiri with sesame seeds. Oboro kombu, or shaved kelp, is another favorite. Or enjoy it plain.

* * *

Easy Onigiri, from APís Yuri Kageyama

Start to finish: 5-7 minutes

Servings: 5 rice balls (enough for five people, or just one big eater)

ľ teaspoon salt

Ĺ cup water

1Ĺ cups Japanese rice, cooked to fluffiness

Three umeboshi salted Japanese plums (available at Asian food stores;
for smaller umeboshi, use one for each rice ball)

Two sheets of dried nori seaweed

Directions: Add the salt to the bowl of water. Wet your hands with the salted water, pick up a handful of cooked rice, still hot but cooled enough so your fingers donít burn. Put umeboshi on top. Pick up another scoop of rice with your other hand, place it on top of the rice and umeboshi. Cup your hands together, squishing gently. Turn a few times in your hands so the rice becomes a slightly triangular ball. Wrap with nori.

Add any desired garnishes, such as sesame seeds or kombu.

Yuri Kageyama covers Japan news for The Associated Press. Her topics include social issues, the environment, businesses, entertainment, and technology.

* * *

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