Onigiri is a popular way to take Japanese food on the go.
Think of it as a Japanese sandwich! It’s a hand pressed ball of rice, usually filled with a salty or vinegared treat, and often wrapped with a piece of nori or coated with sesame seeds. Popular fillings include umeboshi, tsukemono, smoked salmon, salted cod roe, katsubushi, or any thing you like that is not too greasy, juicy, or likely to spoil easily. You want something with a strong flavor to balance the blandness of the rice. Ham? Avocado? And now apparently popular: canned tuna and mayo! Onigiri can even be eaten without any filling at all!
I’m not going to give you a recipe, but if you have The Japanese Kitchen, check out page 130.
Use about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of rice for each onigiri. The rice must be fresh hot short-grained Japanese rice. My onigiri are filled with smoked salmon.
Below are some notes about the importance of rice in Japan:
Rice has been cultivated in Japan for more than 2000 years. Its fundamental importance to Japanese culture is reflected in the language; the word for cooked rice, gohan, has the general meaning of a meal. No meal, however extravagant, is complete without rice. Rice has other names: kome (or okome with the honorific “o”) is the dry rice you buy. When you cook it, it becomes meshi, raisu, or gohan. The most basic Japanese meal is a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso soup, and some pickles.
The preferred rice of Japan is a short grain, sticky rice. When the hull and the germ are milled off the grains to make the rice white it is hakumai. Rice which has been milled to remove only the hull, reserving the germ, is more nutritious and is called haigamai. Brown rice, the unmilled version, is called genmai and is the most nutritious. Mochi rice (or sweet rice), another variety often grown in Japan, is even stickier. It’s pounded to make rice cakes and desserts. It is becoming fashionable in Japan to mix rice with other grains such as millet, barley, and spelt to make up for some of the nutrients lost in milling.
Rice is used to make sake and mirin. Rice bran is used to make pickles. The grain is also used to make a delicate vinegar. Rice is ground into flour and used to make snacks and sweets. Tatami mats are woven of rice straw. The straw is also used for making ropes and sandals.
Traditionally plain rice is eaten at every meal, usually at the end. There are a number of casual meals where the rice is cooked with something for flavor and color: peas, mushrooms, chestnuts, bamboo shoots, sea vegetables, or oysters. Donburi dishes are made by serving meat and vegetables on top of a bowl of rice. There are meals that reflect foriegn influences on Japanese cuisine, including stir-fries and rice topped with omelettes.
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