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.

onigiribento

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.

kyaraben

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!

 

Essentials of Japanese Cooking:  Sugar & Salt

Japanese cooking is rich in tradition and precise technique. Whether creating obanzai-style meals at home or high-kaiseki cuisine at the finest restaurant, Japanese cooking tradition, or washoku, is based on five sets of thoughtful principles–five colors, five flavors, five senses, five methods, and five viewpoints. As we begin 2016, we’re introducing the five ingredients of Japanese cooking that serve as the foundation for these principles: sugar, salt, vinegar, soy sauce and miso. satou

These five ingredients, known collectively as ryori sa shi su se so, are stocked in almost every Japanese kitchen pantry and are added to foods in this precise order. Herbs and other light seasonings are used to enhance the flavors of these essentials, creating light and tasty dishes. The technique for adding seasoning to food is based on the type of preparation method used for the component of the meal, which traditionally includes rice, soup, broiled fish, poultry or meat, simmered vegetables, a salad and pickles.

In a simmered dish of vegetables, the ingredients are cooked in a liquid that infuses them with savory umami, enhancing and drawing out the natural taste of the vegetables. The vegetables are placed in a pot, water or stock is added, and the sa shi su se so ingredients are added one at a time, building a mixture that is rich, yet delicate.  The first ingredient to be used during cooking is sugar, or sato, as its molecules are larger than those found in salt. Adding sugar before any other ingredient allows the sugar molecules to infuse the food, creating a base upon which all other flavors are balanced.sukiyaki

Once sugar is added to the simmering liquid, salt, or shio, is added to temper the sweetness of the sugar and to build complexity on the palate. Salt is a preservative, and prevents chlorophyll from breaking down, keeping green vegetables green during cooking. Salt begins the process of osmosis, allowing bitter liquids to drain out of ingredients. When used in the correct proportion, salt satisfies the palate.

Sugar and salt are only the beginning in Japanese cooking, and with the addition of vinegar, soy sauce and miso, a Japanese dish truly blossoms. In our next post, we’ll discuss how vinegar and soy sauce are used… and how our simmered vegetables continue to develop! We’d love to hear back from you about your experiences as a beginner with Japanese cooking, so leave us a comment below.