Thursday, August 8, 2013

Onigiri: Japanese Rice Balls

Ever since I learned how to make onigiri (also known as omusubi) after my study abroad stint in Japan back in 2003, onigiri (balls of rice with some kind of filling generally, but not always, wrapped in nori, dried seaweed) have been one of my favorite snacks. I love tuna salad onigiri combination so much that I often skipped the rolling process all together and just mixed tuna with mayonnaise and spread it over white rice, eating it with a spoon. 

As much as I love the tuna (or "sea chicken mayonnaise" as it was called when I bought it from the Lawson convenience stores), it is far from the only kind of onigiri out there. When a friend told me that he hates onigiri because  he doesn't like tuna, I was stunned. That's like saying you don't like pizza because you hate pepperoni. Pepperoni is a very popular pizza topping, but certainly not the only choice. I happen to dislike ham and pineapple, and pizza is still one of my favorite foods. To help him overcome his prejudice, another friend and I decided to make an onigiri buffet for our New Year's party that year. We had tuna and mayonnaise, of course, because it is very popular, but also teriyaki salmon, baby corn, carrot, shrimp, and even Spam filled onigiri! Everyone had a good time trying them, and we had even more fun making them.
Years later, I ran into another crazy onigiri story. My boyfriend Greg had never had savory onigiri, only onigiri filled with red bean paste and other desserts. WHAT?? Not only had I never heard of filling onigiri with anko (sweet red bean paste), the internet agrees that this is a very strange choice for filling. Personally, I think it sounds terrible, and I love anko. One of my favorite ice creams is red bean! The only people I have seen online putting red beans into rice balls are gaijin (foreigners), so I wouldn't put any faith in it. Onigiri is supposed to be a little bit salty, not sweet. The site I just linked to explains that before refrigeration, the people of Japan discovered that they could make rice last longer by packing it around salty things, like pickled plums (a very traditional rice ball filling). 

Anyway, I decided to show Greg what real onigiri is, though since he hates seafood, I was at a loss as to what a good example would be for him. My immediate thoughts were tuna and salmon, which wouldn't work (they are my two favorites). I didn't think he'd be too keen on the Spam onigiri either. We grow cucumbers in the garden, but they aren't the most interesting (or flavorful) filling on their own. Greg looked up on the internet for some good ideas and came across Korean barbecued beef. Perfect! So yesterday, Greg set up the slow cooker to cook the Korean barbecue while I took care of slicing cucumbers, cooking two batches of rice in my rice cooker, and mixing the tuna and mayonnaise for myself. I also carefully ripped up the nori sheets into strips. We had the big square kind made for sushi rolls, making them much too big for wrapping onigiri.

Two things to keep in mind when making onigiri: 1) always use short grain white rice - they don't call it sticky rice for nothing! 2) always wet your hands between forming balls - they don't call it sticky rice for nothing! The general steps are as follows:
  • Be careful to let the rice cool before you pick it up. I have actually burned my palm making onigiri before because I didn't give it enough time. I honestly put my rice in the fridge or freezer once it is done in the rice cooker and keep occasionally stirring until it is cool enough to hold in my hands. You don't want the rice cold, but you don't want to burn yourself either. Trust me.
  • Wet your palms. I mean it, this rice is sticky! Also sprinkle salt into your palm. I am told this helps with the sticking, but it also helps bring out the proper flavor. If you burn your palm from rice that is too hot, the salt doesn't help the pain. 
  • Take a little bit of cooled, cooked rice and flatten it in your damp, salted palm.
  • Put a bit of your filling on the middle of the flattened rice in your palm. I had chunks of cucumber (julienned is also great), canned tuna with mayo, and shredded Korean barbecued beef. The beef was the hardest because it was so long. A small dollop is easier.
  • Put more rice over the top of your filling. 
  • Squish. Okay, not squish exactly, but use your free hand (which I also suggest wetting down) to squeeze the rice together rather like you are making a snowball. If you've never made a snowball, this part might be harder for you. The idea is to get the rice to stick around the filling. This is why using short grain white rice is key. It will stick to anything, most especially itself.
Nori, or dried seaweed, is traditional, but not a requirement. Greg thought it tasted funny with the barbecued beef (I didn't mind it, but I am also more used to it), and didn't wrap his with seaweed after that first one. Toasted sesame seeds are another common onigiri wrapping, and also pretty tasty. I like to save wrapping with seaweed until right before I am about to eat them, especially if the onigiri are still warm, because the seaweed will absorb the moisture and get limp instead of crispy. 

Sometimes onigiri is also grilled or toasted. I have never had it grilled, but I bet it would be very tasty with the barbecued beef filling! I have toasted them in a toaster oven before. I used to stockpile onigiri from the convenience store in my mini fridge in my apartment in Japan and vivify them by sprinkling water over-top, then popping them in the toaster oven for a minute or two. They were still good! 

So, in conclusion, just as sushi is not always made with fish, onigiri can also be made with land animals. Or vegetables. Or nothing if you really just want to eat a chunk of rice. (I'm not judging.) But red bean paste? I'm not so sure.

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