Japan’s unlikely hero: the humble rice ball

by Makiko Itoh

One of the quiet heroes to emerge in this time of grave crisis in Japan is the humble little white ball of rice called onigiri or omusubi.

We’ve seen them everywhere. Onigiri distributed to survivors in shelters, the recipients both young and old biting into them with smiles on their faces. Onigiri being made at a frantic pace by volunteers in communities that escaped the brunt of the damage, for their neighbors who were less fortunate. As the days have passed and the supplies continued to dwindle in especially hard-hit areas, there have been scenes of mothers carefully crumbling onigiri into hot water to feed piece by piece to their small children, with nothing left to waste.

Onigiri have even played a part in the Tokyo metropolitan area, where people faced with rolling blackouts have been making sure to cook enough rice while the power is still on so they can make onigiri for later.

Onigiri are a perfect food in difficult times. They last surprisingly well without spoiling, especially if they’re salted enough on the outside and have a long-lasting filling inside such as umeboshi (salty-sour pickled plums). They’re substantial without being heavy, giving a quick burst of energy. They are portable, and do not require any special equipment to make in bulk, save for many helping hands — and in Japan, every woman knows how to make onigiri (and most men, too).

Onigiri ingredients

Freshly steamed white Japanese-style rice — about 1 cup per onigiri
Umeboshi (pickled plum), stones removed — about 1/2 tsp per onigiri
Salt
Cut sheets of toasted nori seaweed (optional)

But above all, onigiri are comforting and familiar, speaking straight to the heart of eater and maker alike. Especially in the case of onigiri being made for the hungry quake and tsunami survivors, there is love in every bite. They are Japanese soul food. R ice balls are extremely easy to make, with the ingredients listed on this page or with the filling of your choice — tuna and mayonnaise, salted salmon, chicken or almost anything else that will fit inside the palm-size parcel.

Whether you’re helping out in a shelter kitchen or making onigiri for yourself, some basic rules apply. Your hands must be impeccably clean, so make sure you wash them properly, including under the nails. If you have long hair, it should be tied back well so you don’t get it in the rice. The rice must be very warm, if not hot, since cold rice will not stick together properly without the grains getting mashed.

Onigiri molds are available to help you create that iconic rounded-triangle shape. But while using your bare hands instead may seem intimidating, you’ll find that once you’ve made a few and are used to the repetitive motions, it is much faster than using a mold. Older Japanese woman seem to have asbestos hands, since they can whip out an onigiri using hot rice without blinking, but if your hands aren’t as heat-proof, try putting one ball’s-worth of rice in a bowl to cool it down a bit before proceeding.

Once you have prepared the ingredients, moisten your hands with cold water and shake off the excess. Sprinkle your palms liberally with salt. Using a rice paddle or spoon, put the rice on one hand, flatten it a bit and make a dent in the middle. Put a small amount of umeboshi or other filling in the indentation, about 1/2 teaspoon per onigiri (this amount varies according to the saltiness of the umeboshi).

Cup the hand slowly as you hold your other hand over it, to gather the rice over and around the filling. Gently squeeze and turn the rice repeatedly, until you have a compressed but not too-tightly squeezed ball. You should apply just enough pressure so the grains hold together, not smash them. You can form the ball into a triangle, a slightly flattened circle or a cylinder shape.

Once the ball is shaped, set it down on a clean surface to let it cool to room temperature while you make more onigiri. Optionally wrap one or two pieces of nori (dried seaweed) around each, then wrap it in plastic film for easy transportation.

Repeat until you have as many body- and soul-nourishing onigiri as are needed.

Right now, thousands of onigiri all over Japan are being eaten, by evacuees and survivors and workers in the stricken northeast as well as those not physically affected in the west, far north and south, reviving spirits a little at a time. Is it an exaggeration to say that onigiri will play a part in Japan’s revival? Somehow I don’t think so.

Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha International). She writes about bento lunches at www.justbento.com
and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.