I work behind the counter at the municipal library once a week. I am not a librarian, nor am I fluent in polite Japanese, so I sometimes wonder if my presence there is doing anyone a service – but I get to relax, wave at cute children, and go through the newly-returned cookbooks, so who’s complaining?
Recently, someone brought back a book titled おにぎりの便利手帳 (Onigiri no Benri Techou – The Handy Notebook of Riceballs). I snapped it up immediately.
Riceballs go by the name onigiri or omusubi. In essence, they consist of ball of salted rice in the shape of a flattened triangle, filled with something relatively unperishable and wrapped in a sheet of seaweed. Because of their flat, compact shape and the nature of their ingredients, they are the essence of portable convenience food in Japan. The place they hold in picnic menus, children’s lunches and convenience store cuisine might make them comparable to sandwiches in the U.S.
If onigiri are like sandwiches, then the ham and cheese on white bread of the onigiri world is a ball of white rice, filled with pickled plum or salted salmon and wrapped in a sheet of nori. These classics certainly have their place, but to limit oneself to these combinations is to turn away from the limitless array of possible flavors and fillings. In place of white rice, why not try short grain brown? How about riceballs with raisins, rolled in curry powder? Or tomato rice riceballs, filled with taco meat and avocado? So long as your fillings aren’t too wet and your rice is sticky enough, there are no limits to what you can make.
With the beginning of summer BBQ season in mind, here’s a classic onigiri variation that I think the folks at home will enjoy.
Yaki Onigiri (Grilled Riceballs)
- 1 cup short grain rice (you can experiment with varieties, but in principle, you want something that is naturally sticky – i.e. sushi rice), with the appropriate amount of water
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1/4 cup cold water
- 1-2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon miso
- 1 tablespoon mirin
- 1 tablespoon leek or green onion, finely chopped
- Steam rice as the package directs. You want it to be fully cooked and soft, but not goopy. The rice needs to be hot when you work with it.
- Prepare miso topping. Combine miso, mirin and chopped leek into a paste and set aside.
- Combine salt and water in a bowl. You will use this mixture to keep your hands wet as you mold the rice – this prevents it from sticking to you, and also makes working with hot rice slightly more bearable.
- To make riceballs: Scoop a handful of cooked rice into your wet hand. Using both hands, form the rice gently into a ball – you shouldn’t have to mash it together. Allow the ball to rest in the palm of one hand. Use the other to rotate the ball, forming it gradually into a thick disc shape.
- On a grill or in a broiler, grill your riceballs until they begin to brown. Turn them over to brown both sides, and then remove from heat.
- Using your fingers, a spoon or a pastry brush, paint the tops of the browned riceballs with the miso mixture from step 2, or with plain soy sauce. Return the seasoned riceballs to the grill or broiler until browned, but not burned. (Note: this happens quickly – keep a close eye on them.)
- Enjoy hot. The outsides will be a little crunchy, but the insides will be moist. Good alongside grilled meat and vegetables, with a cold beer and watermelon for dessert. You can also wrap them in foil and enjoy them later – they were good in my bento this week – or freeze them and heat them up in the oven anytime.
Note: It’s fine to use plain rice for these, but you can also mix it up by using other flavors or fillings. A little bit of salted salmon inside of a soy sauce riceball is great, and I mixed chopped mustard greens into my steamed rice to give it more color and texture. Be creative and have fun!