What I loved when we lived in Japan was that on the days I didn’t feel like making my lunch, I could stop by the local コンビニ, “conbini”, or convenience store, on the way to work for much nicer food than we’d find in our own equivalent shops. I’d park my bike out front in the bike park and then walk in to hear a loud “いらっしゃいませ!” or “Irasshaimase!” (Welcome, we are happy to serve you, kind of thing) by the cashiers whilst making a beeline for the onigiri fridge. For the uninitiated, onigiri are hand-sized cakes of rice pressed into either a round, flat cake or, the more usual, triangle. They are filled with yummy stuff and sometimes wraped in nori seaweed, and sometimes not. They are often translated into English as “rice balls”, but that phrase does not appeal to my sense of linguistic accuracy since they are almost never ball-shaped. I know that is really nerdy and I’m quite sure that they were originally ball-shaped, but let’s move on shall we?
For the onigiri that are wrapped in nori, there is a slight drawback in that the nori will go soft and chewy if left on the rice for too long, making the whole thing rather embarassing to eat as you attempt to rip the nori with your teeth only to find your head snapping back and rice flying everywhere. Well, I hope it’s not just me, anyway. To bypass this sort of episode, a feat of engineering that could possibly only be found in Japan has been invented. It is the double-wrapped onigiri with special keep-nori-dry-and-crispy feature. Yes, I made up the name myself. If you can not follow instructions, this type of onigiri is not for you so just pick up a plain onigiri or go for the noodles and be happy. If, however, you have actually practised a bit of origami when you at primary school, read on. Basically, you unwrap the onigiri by following the numbered tabs so that you can then systematically place the nori onto the rice and then end up with the crunchy snap that fresh nori-wrapped onigiri give when you bite into them. Here is a video demonstration I made. Please remember that I am not a videographer so, sorry about the quality, but do listen for the crunch!
How to enjoy your own yummy-giri
The best onigiri I have ever had were made by these lovely ladies in Niigata City in northern Japan. Aren’t they cool? They, almost exclusively, made onigiri and it was the first time I’d had freshly rolled onigiri that were still warm. Normally they are just room temprature so this was a treat. Paired with some really good miso soup, this little lunch made me a happy bunny.
Making onigiri by yourself is really not difficult at all. Every Japanese person I spoke to liked to tell me about the “two curved fingers” method of shaping that helps you to get the triangle shape. But there are also myriad rice shapers available in any Hyaku-en (hundred yen), shop or supermarket. Yes, you can even get Hello Kitty ones if you are one of those kawaii fiends! One other way to cheat is to use the plastic wrap method that I am showing here. It is really easy for beginners and, seriously, nobody is going to know.
Easy Onigiri Method
Start by preparing your short-grain or Japanese sushi rice. Once the rice is cooked, you can decide if you want to flavour the whole lot or just put some filling in the middle. If you want to flavour the whole lot, you can add some commercial (or home made!) furikake and mix it through.
Next, you get a piece of plastic wrap, place it over a small bowl like a rice bowl, and sprinkle it with a bit of water to help stop the rice sticking. If you are using plain rice, at this point you can also add a little salt to the plastic which will end up on the rice.
Next, you place a handful of rice into the plastic wrap and add some filling in the middle if you are using it. Push the filling into the middle letting the rice enclose it completely. Close up the end so that you have a ball of rice inside the wrap. It should be fairly tight so that the rice compacts, but not so tight that the parcel bursts.
So, now you have a nice little parcel of rice and all you have to do is flatten it a bit and push the rice around so that you get a triangle shape.
Since the rice is already wrapped, you can just pop it into your bento/ lunchbox, or unwrap it and eat it. It is nice to carry some nori in a separate container that you can place on the onigiri when you are ready to eat. You can even buy the super-awesome, keep-nori-dry-and-crispy feature wrappers that I mentioned earlier in Japanese shops if you are keen to have a go at wrapping them, but they are quite tricky to use…and sort of defeat the purpose of making onigiri in it’s own wrapper. But, if you do use them I’d love to see the results so please post a pic on the Five Flavours Facebook page.
Gambatte! Kia Kaha! Good Luck!