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Calling them rice balls is missing the point. These Japanese snacks are full of surprises.

April 03, 2002|ANDREW BENDER | Special to the Times

Onigiri--perhaps the most popular food in Japan after the hamburger--go back more than a millennium but are as contemporary as Pokemon.

They're often called rice balls in English, but that hardly begins to tell the story. Onigiri are made of cooked Japanese rice, usually pressed into an equilateral triangle about three inches across and one inch thick, but they might be cylindrical or ball-shaped. At the center there's often a treasure--a pinch of grilled salmon, some cod roe, a Japanese pickled plum or a dollop of kombu (kelp) marinated in soy sauce. Sometimes onigiri come dusted with sesame seeds or flakes of dried fish, or you can wrap the whole concoction in a sheet of crisp dried nori seaweed and create what looks like a miniature Noguchi sculpture.

Some food historians say that onigiri--the word comes from a root meaning "made by gripping with the hands," as in nigiri-sushi--got their start as road food for soldiers during the Heian Period (794-1192); the saltiness of the fillings is said to have acted as a preservative. Others say that onigiri were originally doled out by nobles to peasants gathered outside their gates.

More recently, generations of Japanese schoolkids have packed onigiri in their lunch bentos, golfers and hikers take them--along with cans of green or oolong tea--for long days in the great outdoors, and Japanese airlines have been known to serve them as mid-flight snacks.

"My baachan [grandma] used to make onigiri as an after-school snack," recalls Kyle Inouye of Sherman Oaks. "I suspect it was to fill my mouth up, so I'd be quiet for once. But like anything she would make for me, it was the most amazing thing to eat, even though it was mostly just rice pushed together."

Many visitors to Japan don't consider that they've actually arrived until they've eaten an onigiri.

Onigiri can also be grilled over the same fire used for chicken or fish. The outside should turn a little crisp, and when an onigiri is brushed with soy sauce toward the end of the cooking process, it takes on a nutty sweetness. These yaki-onigiri (from the same root "yaki," meaning to grill, as in yakitori), sometimes take the place of dessert in Japanese grill restaurants.

The modern onigiri has practically gone free-form. Bite into one and you might find a distinctly nontraditional filling: mayonnaise-y tuna salad, karashi mentaiko (spicy cod roe), negi-toro (raw fatty tuna with sliced green onion) or ingredients of Korean origin such as kimchi or yaki-niku (garlicky grilled beef). In Hawaii, where onigiri are called musubi (a name that in Japan is used only for roundish onigiri), the most popular variety is topped with a slab of Spam brushed with teriyaki sauce.

Onigiri may have once come courtesy of nobles, but in today's Japan they come courtesy of 7-Eleven or other convenience stores. In Los Angeles, you can find them at Japanese grocers. On either side of the ocean, less than a dollar can buy you an onigiri in a nifty plastic wrapping with a special sheath to keep the nori crisp.

They're also easy to make at home, starting with warm cooked rice. Inouye recalls his grandmother washing her hands, "and while they were still not fully dried she'd rub table salt on them as if it was lotion, pick up the rice and sculpt away."

Different families favor different shapes for onigiri. "In my family we make onigiri in a shape called tawaragata, kind of like a capsule," says Kari Hynek, a native of Japan now living in Los Angeles. "But there are rectangle families, ball families and triangle families."

Though shaping onigiri seems simple enough, it helps to buy a mold. Not only will onigiri molds allow you to turn out perfect shapes even if you're not a natural sculptor, they are also some of the coolest kitchen gadgets around.

One, called the norimaki nigiri, looks like a pup tent with slots like on a miter box. You line the inside of the mold with a sheet of nori seaweed or plastic wrap, layer in rice, fillings and more rice, and clamp the whole thing down with the base of the mold. Then you use a knife to slice through the slots to form the individual triangles. Genius. You can also get molds in the tawaragata shape, or like dainty flora, although some of them make only one onigiri at a time.

To wrap your onigiri, Japanese markets sell packages of toasted nori (yakinori). And in case you're planning on eating your onigiri later, the Yamamotoyama company has thoughtfully wrapped the nori sheets in the same sort of plastic sleeve you find with the commercially packaged onigiri. Note that yaki-onigiri are not wrapped in nori. Heavens, no.

If you prefer your non-yaki-onigiri undressed, a popular simple preparation is to sprinkle them with furikake: flakes of dried fish, seaweed, dried egg or sesame seeds, sold in jars with shaker tops and traditionally used to flavor rice for kids. Yaki-onigiri might be garnished with katsuo-bushi, flakes of dried bonito, or with a couple of slices of yellow Japanese pickled radish (takuan).

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