Japanese Food Onigiri?


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  • おにぎり Onigiri
  • おにぎり Onigiri
  • おにぎり Onigiri

With over 2000 years of history, onigiri is the ultimate functional food with excellent preservative quality and portability and remains delicious even when it’s cold. One can enjoy a variety of rice balls, with some containing dried plums, salmon, and there are also grilled rice balls.

What is onigiri?
It is the Japanese spirit of emotions and functionality. Onigiri, also known as “omusubi” or “nigiri meshi”, could be said to be the most popular household meal in Japan. One reason for this is, as the name suggests, it is usually made by gripping it with the hands (to grip = nigiru). Traditionally, onigiri was made by a mother gripping the rice and is perceived as the mother’s love itself. It is a food prepared with love. 

Furthermore, onigiri has aspects that make it functionally efficient as a portable meal. These aspects include the following three characteristics: 1) The shape of the onigiri itself, 2) A procedure used when making onigiri, and 3) the preparation of the onigiri fillings. Firstly, the shape of onigiri, as it appears, is as big as one’s hand. Therefore, it can be eaten without using utensils, such as chopsticks, knives or forks. An important step when making onigiri is to sprinkle salt on your hand when gripping the rice. Salt not only serves to add flavor, but also serves a major function. Additionally, salt prevents the bacteria from growing, as well as replenishing people with the salt that they lose from outdoor activities. Lastly, the fillings. Various features have also been included in the fillings. For example, adding a pickled plum will have an antiseptic effect and adding meat and fish will contribute to obtaining necessary protein. Different nutrients can be obtained depending on the ingredients, fulfilling the role of a meal. 

What is staggering about onigiri is the great number of variations in ingredients. If you do visit Japan, please go to a convenience store once and check the onigiri section. Ingredients that have been familiar to the Japanese people since the old times include pickled plums, salmon, kombu seaweed and finely chopped katsuobushi (skipjack). On the other hand, the fillings that are becoming common in recent years are often westernized ones, such as tuna mayonnaise and salmon mayonnaise. Additionally, there are many interesting variations. There are ones where rice omelets are turned into onigiri and ones where fried sausages and spam sandwiched between two blocks of rice. There are also onigiri with Italian flavors which use cheese and meat sauces, making checking the fillings itself quite an interesting activity. Furthermore, recent onigiri also includes those with Chinese flavors, such as onigiri using gyoza dumplings, chili oil (a condiment made from spices and vegetable oil), green pepper steak and stir-fried shrimp in chili sauce, as well as those with ramen flavors such as tonkotsu and miso. There are onigiri that include sushi ingredients, such as salmon roe and tuna, with onigiri variations continuing to increase. Surprisingly, there are those made with rice cooked with other ingredients, like fried rice, unlike the common onigiri where white rice is used to wrap the filling. 

Currently, in association with the current “local flavor boom” that Japan is experiencing, onigiri with local flavors that is inspired by the local cuisine of each region are being made, showing that the evolution of onigiri knows no end.
Does onigiri have the longest history as a food item in Japan!?

The history of onigiri goes a long way back. Its origin can be traced back 2000 years. A lump of carbonized rice grain presumed to be onigiri has been unearthed from an ancient site from around 300 BC. Furthermore, this carbonized rice had traces of being gripped by human fingers. Although it has not been clarified, it is viewed as a theory. Other theories include one that states that onigiri was found around 800 AD.

This history may come as no surprising given that rice has been eaten in Japan since the old days and considering its preparation methods. However, given the fact that onigiri is a food that has been eaten for over 2000 years, it is not an exaggeration to say that onigiri embodies the soul of Japan.
Can handmade onigiri be produced by machines? The most remarkable technology for the onigiri sold at convenience stores, etc. is its manufacturing technology Although it depends on the specifications of the machines that make onigiri, referred to as onigiri manufacturing machines, there are those that can make 3,000 pieces of onigiri in 1 hour. However, onigiri is the most appealing when it is made by hand. As a matter of fact, there are actually manufacturing machines that recreate handmade-style onigiri. 

Furthermore, technology involving onigiri does not only end with gripping rice. Technology plays a part in the wrappings that cover onigiri. By including a second layer of wrapping between the rice and the nori (dried seaweed), the nori is protected from the moisture of the rice. This unique wrapping method will enable one to eat onigiri with crunchy nori at any time. Although this structure may seem complex, the design actually allows one to enjoy the meal in an extremely simply manner. Please experience convenience store onigiri if you have a chance.

Regional differences
Onigiri from across Japan. Regional features can be captured by seeing the onigiri ingredients. Below are the unique onigiri from each region. 

1. Benkei-meshi (rice; Yamagata prefecture) 
Benkei-meshi is the local food the common people have enjoyed for many years, and is prepared by cooking onigiri lathered with miso and wrapping it with pickled green vegetables, a Yamagata specialty. There are several theories as to where the name Benkei-meshi comes from. One theory states that the color of cooked miso and the large size of onigiri resembled the fist of Benkei, a servant of Minamoto no Yoshitsune (a famous samurai during the Heian period (8-12 century)). Another theory states that the name came from the onigiri resembling the reddish face of Benkei. 

2. Tangle flakes onigiri (Toyama prefecture)
Toyama City has had the highest annual expenditure of kombu seaweed per household in Japan since 1960. The representative onigiri of the city is tororo kombu (tangle flakes) onigiri. It is interesting to note that although onigiri wrapped with tangle flakes is rare in other places in Japan, it can be bought anywhere in Toyama. 

3. Tenmusu (Aichi prefecture) 
Tenmusu is a bite-size onigiri with small shrimp tempura stuffed inside. It is an ingenious food where tempura and onigiri, two foods particular to Japan, can be enjoyed at the same time. Although these can be bought in convenience stores, it is important that the onigiri is fresh since tempura is used as an ingredient. It is recommended you buy those sold in the food product section of department stores. 

4. Unamusu (Shiga prefecture) 
Yaki (grilled) onigiri where the rice is mixed with eels and leeks, grilled with charcoal and then grilled once again. Just like with tenmusu, this is a luxurious food that allows one to enjoy Japanese eels at the same time. 

5. Niku-maki onigiri (onigiri wrapped in meat, Miyazaki prefecture) 
Onigiri prepared by wrapping the rice with thinly sliced marinated pork and then grilling it thoroughly. The combination of pork mixed with the secret sweet and sour sauce with freshly cooked rice is simply exquisite.

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