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Turning Japanese: Onigiri

onigiri1Oh, onigiri. How I love you. Often said to be the Japanese equivalent of the sandwich, these balls of rice are at once ubiquitous and extraordinarily varied. They are also easy, tasty, and very accommodating of necessity or invention. They can be mixed or filled or wrapped with just about anything, which makes them even more deliciously endearing. When tooting around Japan with Wonder Twin #1 this summer, we would stop every morning at the closest 7-11 or Lawson for breakfast, where we were invariably greeted by a wide array of surprisingly tasty tinned coffees and myriad triangular, nori-clad onigiri.

Ingeniously packaged so the moist rice and seaweed remain separate until you unzipped it all and it pops into your hand all done up in the still-crisp nori. (This is a nifty piece of engineering that needs to be experienced to be believed.)  The Wonder Twin usually went for tuna, which I found a bit much at 9am. I usually picked up the ume-shiso, a salty blend of pickled plum and grassy shiso. Mr. T generally had tea sandwiches, but he’s English. Thus fortified, off we would go to conquer whatever temples, shopping districts, or Important Cultural Assets were on our agenda for the day.

Harumi has a lovely recipe for onigiri with soy-cooked ground chicken, and you can put just about anything in them–tuna, roe, and ume being quite common. Given that we are still existing under blizzard-barren shopping conditions, I just made the soy-grilled and the ume-filled versions, but you should feel free to let your whimsy dictate what you put in. Just a little bit, though, it’s really mostly about the rice. Sourcing difficulties aside, the below is still a very ad-hoc kind of production. I KNOW I have friends who know more about this than I do. What’s the REAL way to make them?

Basic Onigiri
Adapted from Tokiko Suzuki, my bag of rice, and Japanese 7-11s
Makes ~12 large onigiri (here, 7 soy-grilled, 4 ume-filled)

2 c Japanese short grain rice
1 2×2 piece kombu, wiped clean
2 tbs soy sauce
1 tbs sugar (superfine works best)
splash rice wine vinegar
2 tbs stoned ume, roe, tuna, or other fillings

Rinse the rice till water runs clear. Cover with fresh water and let sit 1/2 hour. Drain rice and put into a heavy saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Add 2 c plus 2 tbs water. Add kombu and bring to a boil. Remove kombu, reduce heat to low, cover, and cook 14 minutes.

While the rice is cooking, combine the soy sauce and sugar and mix till sugar is dissolved. Set aside.

After rice is cooked, remove from heat and let sit, covered, until cool enough to handle. With clean, wet hands, take a ball of rice–somewhere between a golf ball and a clementine’s worth–and form into the following shapes.

For stuffed onigiri, stick your thumb deeply into the center of the rice ball and place a generous teaspoon of filling in the cavity. Close the rice over the filling and form into a rounded disc. Serve with sheets of nori to aid in eating.

For the soy-grilled onigiri, flatten the rice into rounded triangles about 3/4″ thick. Press firmly to ensure that edges are neat, using the “L” between your thumb and forefinger to form the sides of the triangle. Heat a non-stick fry pan or griddle over medium-high heat. Coat very lightly with vegetable oil. With wet hands, place the onigiri on the griddle, sliding them about a bit so they don’t stick. After a minute or so, lightly brush a little of the soy mixture onto the tops of the onigiri, and–with wet hands–flip them over. Brush top of onigiri with soy mixture, and cook another minute or so. Repeat flipping and basting each side once or twice more till surface is crisped and some of the rice is lightly browned.

Let cool and serve at room temperature.

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