On a comfortably cool night in February, New Yorkers were in for a treat when leading washoku authority Elizabeth Andoh, of A Taste of Culture, presented on riceballs, known as onigiri and omusubi (two words used interchangeably). Held at Globus Washitsu, courtesy of Culinary Historians of New York, this organization, one of the oldest of its kind, had welcomed Andoh previously in 2004 for a popular presentation on ekiben, or boxed meals sold at train stations in Japan. This time, the focus was riceballs. This fascinating presentation offered a delectable array of information, from the history of riceballs, their place in Japanese society and culture, and the various constructions. (You can read a wonderful program recap courtesy of Culinary Historians of New York here.) Attendees enjoyed samples from Brooklyn Ball Factory in three flavors – familiar and comforting salmon, refreshing and tart salted plum (ume), or the savory and uniquely indulgent bonito. We could eat our fill, as the catering allotted for everyone to try one of each flavor. Complemented by two types of sake provided by Sakaya, it was a simple yet jovial reception before the presentation began.
For newcomers and aficionados of Japanese food and culture, there was something to learn from Andoh’s informative and entertaining presentation. Drawing on her long experience cooking Japanese food and living in Japan throughout her adult life, Andoh provided a unique perspective as one grown up in the United States returning to her ancestral homeland. Explaining about filling, wrappings, and cooking styles, her presentation was a useful primer for anyone keen to jump into this simple, home-style cooking.
The most intriguing and applicable aspect of her presentation was the description of the various ways that these glutinous bundles can be contained. While seasoned, roasted seaweed (nori) is ubiquitous, Andoh’s lecture touched on the many other ways that rice balls have historically been packed as well as new ways that rice ball lovers are finding to do so. Among them was the inclusion of leaves as a wrapper. Most common is shiso (perilla). Yet, she also highlighted other options such as Hiroshima-na, a type of loose-leaf Chinese-style cabbage cultivated near Hiroshima. As spring approaches, it seems a good time of year to begin considering green wrappings. A visit to a Japanese or Chinese greengrocer is in order.
Despite consuming three rice balls and three glasses of sake, I left the lecture hungry for more. In particular, I was intrigued by those leafy greens. Adapting a recipe at the Onigiri Society website, I created a salmon-parsley rice ball, both savory and refreshing. There was something rather Scandinavian, Russian, or Hokkaido-esque in its presentation and flavor. Covered in chopped parsley, it has a wonderful aroma and is pretty on the plate. Made with ingredients commonly found in the home kitchen, this recipe proves that riceballs can span cultures and flavors. I also decided to try my hand at making a riceball somewhere in between a sandwich and a riceball. Filled with spam and arugula, it is salty and satisfying. Last was one flavored simply with red shiso and dried pickled plum. It rounded off the meal in the way that pickly things only can.
Onigiri are not only a comfort food, but also one of convenience and transport. There’s no telling how many times I would pick up an onigiri or two and plop them in my purse when I was running errands or on the road. They are there when you need them and instantly adaptable. And did you know you can freeze them, too? Now, as the weather grows mild, we can turn our thoughts once more to adventuring out of doors and enjoying the fresh air. Tucked away into a picnic basket or box lunch, onigiri make the perfect companion.