Ingredients, dishes and drinks from Japan by Ad Blankestijn

Saturday, March 3, 2012


Rice ball. おにぎり。

A ball of rice with filling, meant to eaten with the hands as a quick snack or a convenient food when outside.

Fast foods existed in Japan long before McDonalds arrived with its fattening hamburgers. My favorite type of such a traditional fast food is at the same time the most simple: the plain, old-fashioned rice ball.

Apart from a bowl of white rice in its original form, rice balls are probably the simplest rice dish. The name comes from nigiru, the squeezing of the rice into a ball form. Another name is omusubi, from musubu, to bind together. The boiled rice is molded with the bare hands - which have been moistened to prevent the rice from sticking to the palms - into either triangular (sankaku), round (maru) or cylindrical (tawara, in the form of a traditional straw rice bag) balls.

[Onigiri from the supermarket]

The simplest and probably oldest form was where only the palm of the hand was lightly covered with salt to give taste to the rice ball - but this is a form you don't see much anymore - although salt may still be added in this way, there usually is a filling as well. A sheet of toasted laver (nori) is wrapped around the ball; alternatively, it may be sprinkled with sesame seed. Onigiri can also be covered with miso and then grilled.

As fillings usually ingredients with a strong salty or sour taste are used. Examples are:
  • umeboshi (a pickled plum) or bainiku (the sieved flesh of the pickled plum, without the pit);
  • sake or shiojake (fried, salted salmon);
  • katsuo (dried and smoked bonito);
  • tarako (salted cod's roe)
  • mentaiko (cod's roe seasoned with chili-pepper);
  • maguro (tuna)
  • konbu (kelp)
  • ebi mayo (shrimp and mayonaise)
  • ikura (salmon eggs)
  • chirimenjako (tiny young sardines)
  • yakiniku (grilled meat)
  • natto (fermented soy beans)
  • takana (the rice mixed with pickled takana)
There is tendency for more "Westernized" onigiri to appear on the market: shrimp or tuna flavored with mayonnaise, balls with chicken meat, and even beef! You also find other non-traditional nigiri without nori, so just consisting of the pressed rice: chahan (Chinese fried rice), ome-raisu (boiled rice flavored with tomato sauce wrapped in a thin omelet), gomoku (boiled rice flavored with vegetables and small pieces of meat).

Originally, onigiri were typical home cooking, made from the left-over rice of the previous day. Elderly Japanese still wax sentimental when thinking about the rice balls made with tender and loving care by their mothers, and acquiring a special taste from the amino acids in her hand palms.

It goes without saying that onigiri are eaten with the hands, and not with chopsticks. Rice balls are the perfect food for picnics or to take along on a hike - and even for a quick office lunch.