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.
My love of onigiri never flagged during my time in Japan, but it was especially intense during those first few weeks, especially because every rice ball I bit into was essentially a surprise. Most onigiri I saw looked identical — triangular balls of rice wrapped in seaweed — except for a big sticker that announced its hidden filling. I could read about 20 percent of the labels, since they were written in the syllabaries I knew, but even words I could sound out were mysteries. Biting into the two rice balls I bought for lunch every day was an adventure. Would it be a bit of gingery chicken? Some bright orange salted fish roe? Or a salty-tart umeboshi (pickled plum)?
Salted salmon was always one of my favorite fillings. If you are lucky enough to live near a Japanese market, you may be able to find shiozake (salted salmon) for sale, but this recipe takes advantage of a more readily-available cured fish that is just as flavorful: smoked salmon. Of course, this recipe is just a jumping off point when it comes to making rice balls. Basically anything intensely flavored and cut small enough to be wrapped up in rice is fair game: tuna salad, chopped pickles, curried chicken salad, smoked trout, marinated tofu, olives...the sky's the limit.
In Japan you'll find onigiri in supermarkets and convenience stores wrapped in an ingenious way that keeps the seaweed separate from the rice until you open it, so it stays dry and crisp. Without this special packaging technology, the nori of homemade rice balls becomes soft and chewy within a few minutes of wrapping, but I rather like this more rustic texture. It's like pudding skin — special because it reminds you that what you are eating is homemade.
Another reminder is the plain round shape. Experienced onigiri-makers can turn out the traditional triangular shape, but it's easier and just as tasty to make a rounded cake instead. Packed into a lunch bag, they are filling, nourishing and easy to eat on the go, whether you're on the road headed out of town or packing for a picnic close to home.
Salmon and Black Sesame Onigiri (Japanese Rice Balls)
Makes 4 rice balls, serves 2
4 ounces thinly-sliced smoked salmon 3 cups cooked short-grain rice, hot 2 tablespoons toasted black sesame seeds 1/4 teaspoon salt or less, if needed 1 sheet toasted nori, cut in 4 strips
Heat a well-seasoned cast iron skillet or nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Lay the salmon slices in the pan and cook until opaque and lightly browned, 15 to 30 seconds per side. Flake fish with a fork and mix with the rice and sesame seeds. Taste the mixture and add salt if needed.
Place a bowl of water nearby and use it moisten your hands frequently while forming the onigiri, so the rice doesn't stick to them. Place one quarter of the rice mixture (about 3/4 cup) in your hands and squeeze together firmly. Rotate and squeeze until it forms a circular cake that holds together securely. Wrap a strip of nori around the middle. Repeat with remaining rice mixture.
Serve immediately or wrap in plastic wrap to eat later. Most people recommend not refrigerating onigiri because it ruins the texture of the rice, but I find a 30-second warming in the microwave revives a refrigerated onigiri just fine.
You can use white or brown short-grain rice to make onigiri. (Long-grain rice is not sticky enough.) I use short-grain brown rice, which is a little less sticky than white rice and forms a looser ball.
You can use leftover cooked salmon in place of the cooked smoked salmon.
Instead of mixing the salmon into the rice, you can stuff it in the middle of the rice ball: loosely form a ball of rice, press a hollow in the middle, stuff the filling into the hollow, and squeeze the rice to form the onigiri.