Just 60 years ago, preparing food was a time-consuming process that for some — mainly the suburban housewife — could occupy much of the day. Though we had long since progressed from hunter-gathering and industrialization had created a class of consumers rather than producers of food, keeping the family fed remained a job that involved everyone in the household.
No wonder, then, that after World War II, consumers in Europe and the United States embraced every newfangled kitchen innovation — from refrigerators to electric food mixers — as a symbol of progress.
It wasn’t until the 1950s, though, that producers really began going all the way. The market was flooded with ready-made soups, sauces and starches, and preserved and preprepared meats. Many American children raised in the ’50s, after the potato flake was developed, went for years before seeing a whole raw potato. Today, it has come to the point that 70 percent of the U.S. potato crop is processed before it gets to consumers’ homes.
Then there was fast food. Whole meals became available instantly and at low cost, revolutionizing global eating habits.
But decades of canned and processed products have left many people longing for foods that look and taste like their ingredients. Retailers like the Texas-based Whole Foods are beginning to overhaul the way many Americans shop and eat. Generally located in upmarket neighborhoods, Whole Foods offers a large selection of natural raw ingredients as well as conscientiously prepared foods. The chain has found success marketing healthy foods and lifestyles to baby boomer and Generation X-ers alike.
The current popularity of natural foods might strike some as a flash in the pan, but in reality, a deep-seated shift in eating habits has taken place in North America. Since Whole Foods first opened its doors in 1980, the United States has split into two groups: the steadily growing group of those who shop and eat with discrimination, and those who shop in the frozen-foods aisle.
As a chef and a dedicated whole-fooder, I have been shopping at Japanese health-food markets for more than a decade. It seems sadly ironic that this country, with its rich tradition of handmade, meticulously prepared foods and a native cuisine that emphasizes freshness, should have such a dearth of outlets for whole foods.
Today’s Japanese natural food markets seem to be where the same stores in the West were 20 or 30 years ago — outposts frequented by the few dedicated consumers who want to get back in touch with the food they are eating.
Other traditions have been slowly dying, too. It wasn’t long ago that college-student friends of mine regularly received food packages from home, with mom’s miso and dad’s dried fish. When I recently asked a group of college-age young adults where their food came from, though, the near-universal answer was “the konbini.” (The very few who still received the occasional food parcel from home reported that its contents were invariably store-bought).
This inspired me to a small experiment. I went to my local convenience store and purchased three ready made o-musubi (also called o-nigiri), balls of nori-wrapped cooked rice that contain inside them a flavorful morsel of seasoned vegetable or meat. At home I made three o-nigiri with the same filling.
The konbini o-musubi is a masterpiece of design. It is wrapped in two layers of plastic film, one outer wrapper and one underneath to separate the seaweed from the soggy rice, thereby keeping it crisp. With one pull of the tab, both layers of film are torn off — rather like the trick of pulling a tablecloth out from under the the place settings on top — and the o-musubi may be enjoyed with a crunch.
For the experiment, I unwrapped the konbini-bought o-musubi and set them out on a plate on the counter alongside the homemade rice balls. I checked them every day.
After just two days at room temperature — it was fall and fairly cool in the room — the homemade musubi had a sour smell. The following day, a film of mold began to form. The konbini musubi kept on going for almost two weeks, becoming dry and withered before beginning to smell and grow mold.
The experiment confirmed my worst fear. Even this most seemingly benign and healthy of fast foods — these were, after all, just balls of rice — is laden with chemicals in its progress through the konbini machine.
Though it’s not the poster food of the slow-food advocates, might not simple, homemade o-musubi be just the thing to get this fast-food world back on track, health-wise? Who knows, it could even get the konbini generation discovering the joys of fresh, wholesome food.
Making an o-musubi is easier than you think. A plain rice ball might not even have a filling, but just be wrapped in nori. Common fillings include cooked salmon, an umeboshi (pickled Japanese plum) or any other strong-flavored food.
To make the musubi, first wet both hands so the rice doesn’t stick and then rub your palms with a small amount of salt — to season the rice. Take a handful of warm rice and flatten it. Spoon on the filling, about a tablespoon worth, and mold the rice around it, using both hands to form a triangle.
Finally, take a piece of nori — half of a standard-size sheet does the job — and wrap the rice ball. Made several hours in advance, musubi should not be refrigerated or the rice will get hard. A lunch box full of musubi is perfect for a picnic sitting under the spring blossoms.
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