Japanese Bentos – Onigiri

Classically Built Onigiri

Happy 2017, Zojirushi fans! We kick off the new year with a new series about bento, or the Japanese lunch box. Japanese bentos are not only nutritious but creative and beautiful! We’re going to spend some time learning about the special foods and dishes that are found in bento boxes. Stick with us, and you’ll be making your own complete bento in no time!

We begin with one of Japanese cuisine’s beloved comfort foods, onigiri.

Onigiri, also known as omusubi, is a portable, filling convenience food that is nutritious and fun! The purest form of onigiri is made from high-quality cooked white rice that is shaped into either a ball, triangle or cylinder while it’s still hot. During the shaping process, the cook will coat their damp hands with salt to coat the rice with the seasoning.

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Onigiri bento

Onigiri is said to have come into existence after uruchimai, or everyday short-grain white rice, came to be widely used in the 11th to 12th centuries. It became popular as a convenience food before modern refrigeration, as the addition of salt or a sour ingredient helped to preserve the cooked rice and enable people to take food with them when they left home.

Onigiri is a popular bento item because it keeps well, is highly portable and can be formed into lovely shapes. It can be found in elaborately festive bentos as well as in homemade bentos, and unlike sushi or inari, which are made using rice seasoned with vinegar, onigiri can simply be made with white rice and just a touch of salt.

So how many types of onigiri are there?

So many! From the traditional triangular, spherical and cylindrical shapes to adorably cute, molded shapes of popular characters in manga and anime, onigiri takes many forms. Onigiri is often wrapped in thin sheets of dried nori seaweed.  It also can be sprinkled with sesame seeds or furikake such as ground shiso leaf. When grilled over an open flame on a wire rack, yaki-onigiri, or grilled onigiri, can be basted with a glaze like miso butter. Mixing up the type of rice used in onigiri is also a popular way to make it. Short-grain japonica white rice is traditionally used, but brown rice and rice mixed with barley, wild rice, green peas and other grains also make delicious variations. New forms of onigiri, called onigirazu, are like little rice sandwiches wrapped in seaweed.

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Kyaraben, or character bento

Making onigiri is like many Japanese activities… deceptively simple. Start with freshly cooked rice that has cooled to the point where it can be handled, not gotten cold. Moisten hands with water and rub a pinch of salt into hands. Scoop about ½ cup of rice into hands, and mold the rice into the desired shape. If using a mold, then press the rice into the mold. And you now have the most basic onigiri!

Try making our Rice Sprinkles Onigiri, which uses a wonderful vegetable furikake, as well as our Yaki-Onigiri, which results in a crispy outside and soft and savory inside. You’ll love them both!

Stay tuned for our next Japanese Bentos post in which we will be discussing about the different types of fillings for onigiri!

Also, don’t forget to share your favorite onigiri recipe with us in the comments!

 

Japanese Street Food: Tachigui Soba!

tachigui02What’s better than slurping hot soba noodles when you’re out in the cold? Slurping them when they’re hot, fresh, cheap and at a tachigui-style restaurant!

Tachigui, which means “eating standing up”, is a popular style of eating in Japan, especially for quick meals while traveling, commuting or going out for the evening. Tachigui-style eating was first introduced in what is now Tokyo during the Edo Period (1603-1868). During that time, restaurant owners catered to laborers and working class people who needed inexpensive yet nutritious, fresh and flavorful food… the perfect setting for serving soba noodles in soup broth. To minimize costs for space and service, tachigui shops offered standing areas for people to just eat and go.

This style of eating spread across Japan and in modern day cities, tachigui-style restaurants can be found in close proximity to rail stations and commuter areas. Soba noodles in hot soup broth are still the most popular dishes served at tachigui restaurants, but hungry people can also find sushi, barbeque and takoyaki at tachigui stalls.

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Customers eat at a tachigui soba shop in a train station (photo by Nesnad)

Dining at tachigui restaurants is an experience. Since many are located at or near train stations, they offer only counter space for diners. Diners purchase meal tickets called shokken for the type of dish they want from vending machines located at the stall. Meals range from the barebones noodles and soup to various toppings such as tempura, kakiage, eggs, fish cake and more. Once a diner purchases a ticket, they hand that to the server, and wait a few minutes for their bowl to be delivered. Tea and condiments are served freely on the counter.

Meals are inexpensive yet incredibly fresh. Soba noodles are parboiled and freshened before being served to patrons. Basic soba soups start at around 250 yen or $2.50 and soups with many toppings won’t cost more than 500-700 yen or $5.00-7.00. Regardless of price, people from all walks of life and economic circumstances eat at tachigui stalls.

Soba noodles are the perfect dish for a cold December going into the New Year and whether you’re eating tachigui-style soba noodles or toshikoshi soba, we hope you stay warm and have a great New Year!

Essentials of Japanese Cooking: Oseibo

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The spirit of cooperation and coexistence permeates Japanese culture in so many ways, from washoku to coexistence with nature to how relationships are nurtured.

Giving gifts is a long-standing tradition among the Japanese, especially at the end of the year with the tradition of oseibo.

Oseibo is the custom to show goodwill and gratitude to those who have contributed to one’s life, such as to relatives, bosses, or caretakers. Oseibo gifts are often items that the recipient uses every day, such as condiments, cooking oils and sauces, detergents and cleaners, as well as specialty items like alcoholic beverages, gourmet sausages and seafood. Gift certificates also make popular gifts. Oseibo gifts never go to waste, as the items are always useful!

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Department stores frequently setup special sections for oseibo gifts, with the monetary value of gift options ranging from 2000-5000 yen, or 20-50 US dollars. Once an oseibo gift has been selected, how it is packaged and presented is just as important as what it contains. Each gift is packaged nicely and wrapped in special decorative paper labeled with language specifically denoting that it is an oseibo gift. The gifts are either delivered by the store or online retailer or given in-person following the Japanese tradition of giving and receiving with two hands.

Oseibo traces its roots to the Japanese custom to pray for one’s ancestors’ spirits during obon in July and on New Year’s Day. During these times, neighbors and relatives used to exchange the offerings. This tradition turned into gift giving, once in the summer (ochugen) and once at the end of the year (oseibo). Today, oseibo is practiced as a custom to show formal respect and gratitude.

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Oseibo gifts at a Japanese market

Because oseibo gifts are practical as well as pleasing, recipients always find creative ways to incorporate their gifts into their lives, especially when the gifts are of food items or beverages. An oseibo gift of whiskey or brandy turns into a lovely hot toddy during the cold winter months. A gift of smoked seafood turns into a lovely terrine de poisson or seafood jeon. And gifts of gourmet meats and sauces can be used for barbequing and stir-frying teppanyaki.

What do you think would make a nice oseibo gift? And if you receive an oseibo gift, what do you plan to make with it? Let us know in the comments below, and from Zojirushi to you, we hope you have a great end of year!

Passport to Yum – Zojirushi’s Favorite Rice Desserts & Snacks

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We’ve loved all of the rice dishes we’ve tried this year, whether from Asia, South America, the United States or Europe! But we can’t end the year without discussing the myriad desserts and snacks that are made from rice.

Just like those dishes that use rice in its grain or noodle form, many cultures have used this ancient grain in sweet desserts and savory snacks.

The ever-popular rice cracker is a sophisticated snack when made Japanese-style. There are two types of rice crackers most commonly made: senbei and okaki (seen in top photo). Senbei crackers, which originated in China, are made with Japanese short grain rice called uruchi mai and okaki are made with sweet, glutinous rice.  These rice crackers come in various shapes, including square, rectangular, round and as balls, and they can be made by baking, charcoal grilling or deep frying them. We love making this relatively easy okaki-style rice cracker at home, called kakimochi. Try them out and tell us what you think!

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Chakli (photo by Milindb05)

Indian food also has a rich tradition of creating savory rice crackers, one of which is chakli. Chakli is made using rice flour mixed with gram flour, lots of spices such as turmeric, ajwain, cumin, chili and clarified butter, or ghee. The batter is poured through a chakli maker into hot oil, and fried until crispy. Whenever you’re in the mood for a spicy rice snack, try making chakli.

Desserts made from rice are just as popular as snacks, starting with rice pudding! Rice pudding is made across the globe, from Southeast Asian kheer to South American arroz con leche. Arroz con Leche Colombiano is sweet and redolent of cinnamon. Long-grain rice is cooked in a mixture of milk, condensed milk, water, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and butter. The final product is cooled until thick and creamy… just perfect for a holiday occasion.

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Mango sticky rice (photo by Dennis Wong)

Another well-known rice dessert is mango sticky rice, found in many Thai restaurants across the United States and in beach cities across Thailand. Soaked sticky rice is cooked and then simmered in coconut milk, sugar and salt, and topped with peeled Thai mangoes. It’s a refreshing way to end a Thai meal!

Rice desserts can be simple or more colorful and intricate, like the traditional Chinese Ba Bao Fan and the Korean gyeongdan. Ba Bao Fan or “Eight Treasure Rice Pudding” is a traditional dessert served for Chinese New Year in China. This dessert is made by layering eight “treasures” or special ingredients such as sugar-glazed fruit or and sweetened beans onto a base of glutinous rice and sugar. It gets its name from the belief that the number eight is a lucky number for Chinese people because of the similarity of the sound of “ba” (eight) and “fa” which means wealth and prosperity.

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Ba Bao Fan (photo by kawanet)

Gyeongdan is a rice cake made using glutinous rice powder and hot water. The paste is formed into round balls which are coated with multicolored sweet bean powders.

No matter what you’re in the mood for… rice desserts, rice snacks, rice, rice noodles, rice paper, rice dumplings… this amazing food can satisfy all your cravings! We hope you make a lovely dish for your New Year celebrations and that you share them with us!