The first meals alone in a foreign country are always intimidating. When I moved to a small city in central Japan to teach English for two years, onigiri was the first food I clung to. Like a life raft, these seaweed-wrapped rice balls — sort of the sandwiches of Japanese cuisine — kept me afloat in a sea of unfamiliar foods labeled in a language I could just barely read.
Made with short-grain rice, toasted nori and a small amount of flavorful seafood, meat or pickles, onigiri combine some of the elements of sushi, but in a more homey, comforting form. These are not the elegant creations of highly-trained chefs, but the familiar, filling foods of school lunches and train trips, providing a little taste of home while on the road. More