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!

 

Delicate Customs: Undo-Kai!

Undo-kai time is here!

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Every year in Japan, schools hold sports festivals showcasing their students’ physical talents in competitive and cooperative sports. Families and members of the community all assemble at their local or school stadium and watch children at each grade level compete in track and field, dance, o-en-dan, kumi-taiso, ki-ba-sen, tama-ire and ball games.

Undo-kai festivals are daylong events, and often coincide with the National Sports Day holiday on October 10, which commemorates the opening of the 1964 Olympic Games in undoukai03Tokyo. The day begins in the morning, with a procession of children marching to music in their gym uniforms – red teams (aka gumi) separated from white teams (shiro gumi) by the color of their hats. Families spread out blankets on the nearby grass, and lay out their cushions and picnic lunches, ready for the morning’s performances. Children on each team warm-up and stretch, the o-en-dan cheering squads perform dances to music and taiko drums, and the track and field and ball games begin!

Each team has been practicing for this event, from the youngest first grader to older sixth grade students. Each member of the team contributes to the team’s points, which will be tallied at the end of the day to declare a winner. The morning’s competition breaks for one of the highlights for families…a picnic or bento lunch.

Students share the bento lunch with their families, taking a long break in the shade to rest and prepare for the afternoon’s competition. Bento lunches are as much a part of the Undo-kai tradition as the games themselves. Parents and grandparents have been up since early morning preparing onigiri, fresh vegetables, fruit, desserts, chicken, fish, shrimp, omelets, sausages, salads, pickles and sandwiches. The shapes and colors and textures of the food, all delicately seasoned, is a sight to see! Freshly-brewed tea is loaded into insulated bottles and the entire feast is packed in beautiful, stackable bento boxes.

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After eating until everyone is satisfied, the children return to the games, and the afternoon’s competitions of kumi-taiso (group gymnastics), ki-ba-sen (shoulder war), dancing and music continue as more points are collected for each team. Finally, the games end, and the scores for each team are announced. The school principal and representatives from each team lead the closing ceremonies. Win, lose or tie, each team has demonstrated a quintessentially Japanese trait… cooperation, even while competing.