Did you know that the Japanese love fast food? And no I’m not talking about Big Macs with Japanese writing on them, although they certainly exist. Knowing the Japanese, it is of course something far simpler, healthier, and more beautiful. They are called onigiri.
I first discovered onigiri when my colleague Jessica brought a couple of them in for her lunch in the office. She lived in Japan for a while and picked up the habit of eating them while there. Onigiri are simply balls of sticky rice wrapped at the time of eating in nori, or seaweed paper. They are a classic part of the bento box, a very feng shui little Japanese lunch box that includes a balanced variety of foods. Often they are stuffed with a small amount of filling, generally seafood of some kind. Common fillings are flaked salmon, bonito flakes, cod roe, and tuna with mayonnaise.
Jessica’s friend Wakako told me that they are the most popular food for children in Japan, although this is changing as Western tastes and accompanying childhood pickiness become more pervasive. Its no wonder that onigiri are popular children’s food. They are easy, portable, and can be adapted to the tastes of any child. I think these could be a really fantastic option for a bagged lunch, as a fun alternative to a sandwich. Instead of the traditional fillings, you could also fill with (or merely pack alongside) cubes of chicken or turkey, scrambled egg, etc. They would also be a great cooking project for kids!
For my test, I tried the most common variety which is fish/mayo. I also went with a basic ball shape, although triangle is traditional, something you probably know if you happen to be an anime/manga fan. I am very poorly informed on anime, but I hear that a popular character has a head the shape of an onigiri, with nori hair. He looks something like this:
Pretty cute. The hardest part for me was closing the ball around the filling, but I think the keys are to have wet hands and go very easy on the filling. These are basically a vehicle for eating rice, not a rice vehicle for eating the filling. If you want more filling, put it on the side. Another trick is to make the balls on plastic wrap instead of a plate. When you are ready to close your onigiri, fold up the sides of your plastic wrap and shape into a ball.
1 1/2 cup short grain or Asian rice (long grain is not sticky enough)
2 cups water
salt to taste
1 can tuna or salmon
1-2 tbsp mayonnaise
sesame seeds (optional)
nori for serving (recommended)
Boil the rice as indicated on the package. I used Japanese rice. Meanwhile, mix one can of tuna or salmon with the mayonnaise and set aside. (You could also do this with your favorite store bought tuna salad.)Once the rice is done, put in a round flat disc on the plate. In the center, place a small amount of filling. With wet, salted hands, enclose the filling and form into a ball or other shape. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds. To eat, pick rice packet up with a sheet of nori.
In case you are unfamiliar with nori, it is a very thin, dried sheet of seaweed, and can be found in all Asian markets and many supermarkets. I purchased a product called ajitsuke nori, or “seasoned nori” which is similar to what is used to make maki rolls, but is seasoned and crispy. It is also quite delicious, and almost as addictive as potato chips. As far as I am concerned, the nori is a crucial piece of the onigiri experience. It adds a savory, salty crunch that really makes the dish. Children may not agree, however, but you never know!