Japanese soul food in the palm of your hand
By Darren on 18 Jan 2018
Wherever in the world, people eat food (which is of course everywhere but remote unpopulated regions!) there will be a dish that locals consider as their ‘soul food’. Though varying widely between nations and cultures, they are always simple, filling, and evocative of recipes made for us when we were growing up. Most Japanese would agree that their soul food is the onigiri (also known as omusubi or nigirimeshi), a rice ball that can be thought of as the Japanese equivalent to a sandwich.
It fits the soul food bill perfectly. At its simplest the onigiri is just semi-sticky white rice, sometimes lightly salted, shaped into a triangular or cylindrical form. The onigiri that Japanese kids take to school as part of their obento packed lunch though, and continue to enjoy all through adulthood, usually contains a filling of some kind and is wrapped (either partially or completely) in a sheet of nori toasted seaweed.
The humble onigiri is ubiquitous in Japanese daily life. Home-made rice balls are taken to hanami (cherry blossom-viewing) picnics and other outings, while busy students, salarymen, and office ladies will grab one (or several) mass-produced versions from the combini as a quick and easily carry-able snack.
This great convenience is tempered by the Japanese attitude towards eating food on the street, however: though a highly ‘portable’ food, it is considered uncouth to enjoy onigiri (and other snacks) while walking, or when riding on public transport. Better to do as the Japanese do and find a quiet spot to sit down and partake (a park bench maybe, or your love hotel room).
Onigiri also finds their way into surprisingly high places: even high-class traditional Japanese restaurants will offer these rice balls as a filling fix of carbohydrates to follow a succession of light dishes. And at the height of Japan’s economic success in the ‘bubble’ era (late 1980s-early ’90s), the onigiri took on a luxurious aspect as certain upmarket eateries replaced the regular nori with gold leaf!
You also could not find a more ‘Japanese’ food than onigiri, if presence throughout the nation’s history is the criteria. Records from the 17th-century mention samurai warriors carrying onigiri stored inside bamboo sheaths onto the battlefield, while even further back the 11th-century classic ‘The Diary of Lady Murasaki’, written by Murasaki Shikibu, mentions characters eating rice balls (then known as tonjiki) at picnic lunches for the elite.
And in terms of edgy contemporary culture Makoto Aida, who is one of Japan’s most respected modern artists, has created the character Ongiri-Kamen (‘rice ball mask man’) in order to critique common Japanese attitudes and worldviews.
Pop into any of the Japanese convenience store chains (Lawson, FamilyMart etc.) at any time, day or night, and you will find several shelves arrayed with a wide assortment of onigiri (it seems to be an unspoken rule that rice balls fully covered in nori will be displayed at the top, with them gradually becoming ‘undressed’ bare rice towards the bottom).
Take a moment here to take in the varieties on offer: everything from basic yaki-onigiri (plain rice brushed with soy sauce then grilled) and sekihan (sticky red rice with adzuki beans, eaten on festive occasions in old Japan), to traditional fillings such as salted salmon, umeboshi (pickled plum), tarako (salted cod roe), and kombu (a thick, flat seaweed noted for its health benefits and widely used in Japanese cooking). These ingredients were all originally used since they naturally kept the rice fresh, in the days before refrigeration and artificial preservatives. And then there are the modern fillings that these technologies make possible, incorporating all manner of popular Japanese foods including maguro (sushi-style raw tuna) and kara-age (fried chicken), as well as internationally-inspired offerings such as sausage and Chinese-style fried rice (cha-han).
Though home-made onigiri is still massively popular, anybody who has eaten one several hour after preparation will note how the crispy nori covering sadly becomes soft and moist as it sticks to the rice. Convenience store onigiri gets around this problem by using a plastic wrapper that cleverly keeps the rice ball and nori apart until you are ready to eat. These little packages are simple enough to open once you know how, but many foreigners struggle when they first attempt it. Watch this video and you should get it right the first time:
So onigiri has been eaten in Japan for many centuries, at everywhere from school lunchrooms to upscale restaurants, but they have never been considered ‘cool’. Until now that is. The past couple of years have seen a wave of stylish onigiri cafes open up in Tokyo, presenting gourmet interpretations of the humble rice ball and making it the newly hip lunchtime choice.
Onigily Cafe is LoveInn Japan’s favorite, located in the Nakameguro district where many of the city’s most cutting-edge fashion designers, graphic artists, photographers and other creatives choose to live and work. Nakameguro is also home to one of Tokyo’s most popular hanami spots, along the Meguro river.
Here around fifteen varieties of onigiri can be enjoyed in a beautifully-conceived yet laid-back space, with fillings ranging from traditional to the highly original combination of mentaiko (spicy cod roe) and cream cheese. These are available either individually (priced around ¥170 each) or as part of a set (¥1080) comprising two rice balls plus miso soup, kara-age and a choice of two side dishes including potato salad lightly flavored with chili. This is an experience mile apart from convenience store onigiri. The rice has a consistency that holds firmly together on the plate, yet in the mouth gently flakes apart with minimal chewing needed: this feels like the most natural thing in the world.
After this, it might be a little difficult to enjoy mass-produced rice balls quite as much as you previously did. But why not take some inspiration, and attempt to replicate this elevated onigiri when you get back home? After all, sheets of nori (available from supermarkets) will add virtually no weight to your luggage and are also available at Japanese stores in larger cities around the world. You will then be at the vanguard of a foodie trend, as global travelers increasingly take a new-found taste for onigiri back home from Japan with them.
3-1-4 Nakameguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo
Access: Nakameguro station (Hibiya or Tokyu Toyoko line)
Open: Daily 08:00~16:00
Darren came to Japan to study 11 years ago, and never made it back home to the UK. Since then he’s built up a detailed ‘mental map’ of Tokyo by intentionally getting himself lost, and loves taking visiting friends way off the well-beaten tourist track. In his free time Darren can usually be found in the backstreets of Koenji or Asagaya, with camera in one hand and a yakitori stick in the other.