I just bought a charming Japanese cookbook from a local second hand store. Charming, because it was written in 1964 by Masaru Doi, who was a pioneer television chef in Japan. I love these old books because they present Japanese cookery as though afraid Westerners will be nauseated from a lack of hotdogs. There is, in fact, a recipe in the book that involves hotdogs. And then there is his sushi, which is made out of ham rather than fish.
However, there was also a fine recipe for oni giri, rice balls. Rice balls are a ubiquitous part of Japanese culture, dating back to before the introduction of chopsticks in the Nara period (AD 710). Which makes sense, when you think about it – you can pick up a rice ball with your hands and take a bite out of it like an apple. Later on, samurai liked to pack oni giri as a convenient snack between episodes of carnage. They are mentioned in Tale of Genji, considered the world’s first novel. Nowadays entire restaurants in Japan are devoted to them. And Masaru Doi back in 1964, attempting to soften potential criticism from his Western readers, mentions that they are popular snack in Japan “while watching TV.”
It’s hard to overstate exactly how important rice is to Asian life. In Thailand, no matter what delicacies are spread across the table, the diner takes a bite of rice first to emphasize that it is the only part of the meal which really matters. In China, while lying overfed and stupefied on a couch after seven courses, I watched in amazement while my Chinese in-laws tucked into big bowls of rice just to feel like they’d really eaten. And in Japan, rice is rarely mentioned without an honorific. Oni giri, as I have copied here from Masaru’s book, is also rendered o-nigiri, with “o” representing respect (the remaining “nigiri” meaning “rice ball,” the same nigiri as in nigiri-sushi).
Sounds kind of bland, though, doesn’t it? “Rice ball.” And if you live on hotdogs, bland they may well be. But they are easy, fun, and versatile. You can flavour them with just about anything and take them on picnics. I did. They are a truly great snack food.
2 cups sushi rice (you can use other short grain varietals if you can’t find sushi rice, such as Arborio.)
1 tsp salt
2.4 cups water
Flavorants, such as:
all of which will be explained shortly.
Here is how you cook rice properly: rinse it well in water. I should mention there is some controversy about this when it comes to oni giri, at least according to the internet. Rinsing rice removes a lot of the starch which makes it sticky and gloopy, and you obviously need some stickiness to ensure your rice ball maintains its shape. I compromised, and, putting my rice in a big bowl, I rinsed it two or three times but not so much the water ran clear. I then drained it in a sieve and put it in a heavy cast-iron pot.
Add the water. The ratio required is 1 : 1.2, or in this case, two cups of rice to 2.4 cups of water. I added a little salt, because I like rice to be a touch salty. A true rice aficionado might object to this.
Bring the covered pan to a boil, then turn the heat to minimum and let percolate for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and let it sit for an additional fifteen minutes.
Scrape the rice out into a large bowl, fluff it with a fork, and let it cool for a few minutes.
Put a couple of teaspoons of salt in a bowl and fill it with warm water. This is what you will be dipping your hands in while you make your rice balls, and the salt will help flavor the rice further.
Dip your hands in it.
Grab a handful of rice and squish it into a ball. Make the ball absolutely perfectly oblate spheroid, slightly flattened at the poles, with not a single grain of rice out of alignment or poking out at a distracting and embarrassing angle. I’m just kidding, unless you operate an oni giri restaurant. Other fun shapes are triangles and oblongs. Use your finger to poke a depression in some of them for tasty fillings. Put them on a plate. As they cool further, they will become less sticky and more manageable.
Now comes the fun part: flavoring. You can add pretty much anything that makes rice tastier, but don’t overdo it. And keep it one flavoring per rice ball, which makes them into a kind of smorgasbord of savory sweets.
This is a mix of sesame seeds and salt. You can use normal sesame seeds, or black ones, which are prettier. You can also toast the sesame seeds lightly first. Sprinkle them on top of triangular oni giri.
This in an inventive Japanese caviar. I say inventive because the only true caviar comes from Black Sea sturgeon in the Middle East, but the Japanese use a combination of flying fish roe and wasabi to make a delectable and teeny-grained alternative. Pack some of this light green delight into a hole in a rice ball.
This is closer to real caviar, and is made of salted salmon eggs, which are red-orange and quite large (ikura is loan-word from the Russian ikra, meaning caviar). It also fits nicely into holes in rice balls.
A flavored spice mix combining chili pepper, orange peel, black sesame seeds, sansho (which is known in China as Sichuan pepper), ginger, and nori (seaweed). You can find it at Asian groceries.
A similar condiment which includes dried bonito flakes and is absolutely divine on rice. Many Japanese households have a shaker of furikake on the table next to the salt and pepper. In my household, we rarely eat rice without it. Do I need to mention it is found in Asian groceries?
You can also wrap strips of nori around the rice balls. Mmm, seaweed.
Speaking of which, I just found a wonderful Korean supermarket in Tacoma, Washington, called “Pal-DO World.” It’s like Uwajimaya in Seattle, but gritty. You can buy live loaches, whelks, and abalone there. And you can buy something every girl needs…