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Feast in a Fist
When can a simple ball of rice satisfy both body and soul? When it’s an onigiri, Japan’s compact hand-held feast.
For Japanese, onigiri (also called omusubi) are simply a part of life. These ubiquitous rice balls appear in school lunch boxes, as part of a meal, and as fast food or picnic snacks. Though once upon a time onigiri were just rice balls formed in palms lightly rubbed with water and salt, today they carry the promise of astonishing variety and exotic tastes.
There are various theories as to the origin of onigiri. They may have begun as a quick snack during the Heian period (794-1185), enjoyed by noble ladies busy with royal duties (commoners had no access to white rice). The onigiri is also said to be the brainchild of sixteenth century feudal lord Oda Nobunaga. While his troops were on the move, he rationed to each a Spartan meal of rice balls and pickled plums, which became the fundamental style of onigiri. By the late 1800s, white rice–and onigiri–had become part of the general daily diet.
Today, that simple rice ball is long gone and is now a meal in itself, stuffed with everything from Korean barbecue to curried chicken, from salami to salmon. Japanese grab a couple of onigiri for around ¥120 each (US$1.00) as a quick, light lunch or snack that can be eaten any time, any place.
Onigiri first appeared in convenience stores some twenty years ago. Now they’re big business, with sales of some two billion onigiri annually. Stores reserve two or three shelves just for onigiri, and restock them every few hours, as some may sell up to 700 onigiri daily.
Onigiri come in various shapes and may be wrapped in dried nori (seaweed) – or not. In 1978, ingenious origami-like wrappings were developed that protect crispy nori from the moist rice; when removed, the nori settles perfectly around a triangular onigiri. Other onigiri may be wrapped in pickled leaf vegetables, cabbage, ham or just sprinkled with sesame seeds. New onigiri flavors are introduced constantly, only to be replaced weeks later by new taste sensations. The possibilities–sometimes peculiar, always appetizing–are limitless.
A growing number of specialty onigiri shops have taken a gourmet stance toward the humble rice ball. One such shop uses different types of water with its own unique blend of rices to achieve excellent taste. Thirty varieties of onigiri are offered daily–and new taste sensations are introduced every few months. The shop even provides customers with printed handouts about its ingredients and methods. High-end shops such as these tend to offer onigiri already wrapped in nori, rendering it “soggy,” which seems to confer a more “authentic,” homemade quality.
Other businesses, including some fast-food companies, are also basking in the onigiri success story; one depa-chika shop sold about 3,000 onigiri in March 2002–a three-percent increase in its rice ball sales from the same month the previous year.
Although Japan’s overall rice consumption has declined as lifestyles change and Western eating habits encroach, the onigiri trend clearly thrives. Japanese consumers revel in today’s imaginative evolution of the rice ball, and fascinating new variations of onigiri continue to satisfy the innate Japanese love of rice.