Onigiri, and some thoughts on living in the Boston area

by Maggie

Ducks in a row!

I have a confession to make: I’m a creature of habit.

I go to the grocery store to pick up milk, coffee, eggs, and bread.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy exciting food – I wouldn’t participate in a blog like this if that were true! – but it just doesn’t occur to me, in general, to pick up anything other than my staples.  This probably isn’t helped by the fact that I’m from the rural South, and when I was growing up, supermarkets didn’t have much aside from basics. So I shop like my mother shopped – getting tasty basics, and eating pretty much nothing else.

And then from time to time, I remember that I don’t live in the rural South in the 1980s anymore.

Today, for the first time since I moved to this neighborhood four years ago, I popped into an unassuming little market about two blocks from my apartment. From the outside, it looked like a dusty little shop, piled high with impractically huge bags of rice; I’d never paid much attention to it.

Guys, I was so, so stupid. Turns out we have a little gem of an Asian market right next to my house, with a whole refrigerator case full of different kinds of miso, fresh daikons, scallions at $1 for 4 bunches, a butcher counter, and shelves and shelves of everything from sweets to soup-mixes, plum wine to ready-made red bean mochi.  Being a little overwhelmed (as well as hungry and possibly a tiny bit tipsy from lunchtime cocktails with a friend – shhh!), I grabbed a few things at random and sprinted for home to recover my breath.  Further explorations will most definitely follow.

Anyway, to the food. As I was saying, I’m a creature of habit; when I think of “fast lunch” or “easy food,” I make a sandwich or pasta. And I’m sick of it.

So! In honor of my exciting find this afternoon, I decided to give onigiri a try.  Onigiri are a quick meal, made of sushi rice wrapped around whatever delicious (often leftovery) thing happens to be on hand. Pickled plums, salted salmon, tuna salad, whatever you’ve got.

As it happens, at this incredible market this afternoon, I picked up some bonito flakes, so I thought I’d give bonito onigiri a try. As I might have a knitting date with a vegetarian friend tomorrow, I also tossed an onion into a skillet to caramelize in case she was interested in being my guinea pig.

Ingredients:

1.5c sushi rice

generous pinch salt

filling (see below)

1 sheet nori, halved and cut into strips

Make rice: Rinse rice, add to a saucepan with 2c water, and bring to a boil.  Cover, lower heat to low, and simmer 15 minutes. Remove from heat, and let sit, covered, for 10 more minutes. Fluff with a fork, salt to taste, and leave until it’s cool enough to handle — but only barely. The hotter the rice is when you work with it, the better the final product will hold together. Don’t scrape the bottom of the pot; you don’t want any accidentally-overcooked grains mucking up your nice sticky rice.

Filling:

Bonito flakes (I used about ½c, but could have done with less)

1 dash Soy sauce

Moisten the fish flakes with the soy sauce. They should still be fairly dry; you don’t want gloopy fillings! Just toss with a fork until it’s evenly coated and starting to wilt.

Alternate filling:

1 onion, chopped roughly and caramelized

salt and pepper to taste

The Method:

First of all, get yourself a big bowl of water; you’re going to be wetting your hands constantly to keep the rice from sticking to your skin. Get your hands wet.

Take some rice – I used about ¼ c, though I think mine are on the large side –  and smash it flat in one hand.

Put a small amount of the filling – I’d say about a teaspoon, and please note that the photo below shows too much filling (a bad habit of mine, with sushi too!) – into the center of your smashed rice.

Curl your hand up, pushing the filling back down into its hole whenever it wants to escape, until the rice completely covers the filling (I occasionally had to dip back into the pot for a few more grains to seal the cracks!).

I found that the easiest way for me to form a roughly triangular shape was to form the flat sides (the faces of the triangle) between the fingers and palm of my right hand, while my left hand formed a kind of roof over it, my knuckles at the peak. Sorry for the lack of pictures; no hands left for the camera! I found that pressing them fairly aggressively worked a lot better than gentle patting; mine really wanted to crumble, and the more squashing I did, the better they held up.

Wrap a strip of nori around the bottom edge. Admire. Shove into your mouth.

The first one was weirdly almost-perfect!

I got about 10 out of the 1.5c of rice, and two was plenty for dinner.  Weekend lunches/snacks: check!

Important edit: since writing this post, I have learned about another method of forming and filling onigiri, and it allows you to work with much hotter rice, leaving you with a perfectly compact rice ball which doesn’t crumble at all.  Line a small teacup with plastic wrap, brush with salt water, fill with the amount of rice you want in your onigiri, make a little hole and fill with filling, add a few grains on top to cover. Then you can just lift up the plastic wrap and (with dishcloth-covered hands, if you’re a wuss like me) form them into the desired shape without burning your hands. Further details (and photos!) here.

The Verdict:

I’ve never had rice balls before, so I’m afraid I can’t speak to their resemblance to proper Japanese ones, but honestly – it’s a delicious center wrapped in delicious sticky rice wrapped in delicious seaweed, what’s not to love?  The bonito flakes and soy sauce have a wonderfully punchy flavor, and it was balanced beautifully by the rice.  The rich sweetness of the caramelized onions was also fabulous.

How did they look? Well … let’s just say I’ve got some work to do before I make these for company, and I’ll probably practice a few decades before making it for someone who’s had the real thing. But the taste?

Mmmmmm...

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One Comment to “Onigiri, and some thoughts on living in the Boston area”

  1. These look adorable and delicious!!

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