The Japanese Table / Onigiri: Movable feast of limitless possibilities

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Yosuke Miura of Onigiri Asakusa Yadoroku, right, and a machine, left, make onigiri during an event at Seibu department store’s flagship outlet in Ikebukuro, Tokyo.

The Yomiuri ShimbunThis series discusses the present and future of washoku traditional Japanese cuisine. This installment features rice, an indispensable component of washoku.

Onigiri, one of the best known dishes made from rice, has evolved to reflect the features of various eras and regions. Even today, new varieties are being created.

An event at the Seibu department store’s Ikebukuro flagship outlet last November featured an onigiri master from an onigiri restaurant in Tokyo working alongside a machine. The master, Yosuke Miura, is the third-generation owner of Onigiri Asakusa Yadoroku, which opened in 1954. Miura discussed the fascinating aspects of onigiri to onlookers while deftly molding rice into triangular shapes.

“Onigiri can be made quickly,” he said, advising, “Don’t take it so seriously when you make them.”

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

  • Courtesy of Lawson Inc.

    Lawson Inc.’s “Akuma no Onigiri” (Devil’s onigiri)

The machine is being developed by Panasonic Corp. to boost worldwide recognition of onigiri. When enough rice for one onigiri is put into the machine, it applies an appropriate amount of pressure to gently squeeze an onigiri as a person would.

Visitors expressed their amazement, making comments such as, “Yadoroku’s onigiri are fluffy and taste good,” and, “It tastes better than expected [for an onigiri] made by a machine.”

Yadoroku is the first-ever onigiri specialist restaurant to be featured in the Michelin Guide series. Though it did not receive a coveted star from the famed publication, it was listed in “Michelin Guide Tokyo 2019” under the Bib Gourmand category, which recognizes outlets that offer excellent food at reasonable prices.

“Onigiri is [one aspect of] washoku that people overseas also can easily appreciate,” said Yusuke Nakamura, representative director of the Tokyo-based Onigiri Society. “Although traditionally made at home, it has won worldwide recognition as something to enjoy when dining out.”

Onigiri is one of the most popular rice dishes because it is convenient to carry around and easy to eat. A lump of carbonized rice grains dating back to the Yayoi period (ca 300 B.C.-ca A.D. 300) was excavated from an archaeological site in Ishikawa Prefecture and has been called “the fossil of Japan’s oldest onigiri.” Onigiri were later wrapped in sheets of nori during the Edo period (1603-1867), when seaweed was first cultivated.

Toshiyuki Masubuchi, a professor at Hosei University who has studied rice culture overseas and throughout the nation, describes onigiri as a piece of “distinctive Japanese culinary culture.”

“Although there are many countries and territories where rice is eaten, it’s rare for it to be eaten cold or with your hands,” he said.

There are also a wide range of regional variations of onigiri. According to a survey conducted last September by Yamamotoyama Co., a Tokyo-based nori production and sales firm, 68 percent of respondents from eastern Japan said they usually eat triangular onigiri. However, 57 percent of respondents from western Japan said they prefer roll-shaped onigiri, making it the most popular variety in the region.

When it comes to wrapping, toasted nori is overwhelmingly favored in eastern Japan at 91 percent, while 62 percent of respondents from western Japan prefer seasoned nori.

“Triangular-shaped onigiri have become the leading variation in recent years due to the influence of nationwide convenience store chains,” Masubuchi said.

Seven-Eleven Japan Co. became the nation’s first convenience store operator to sell onigiri products in 1978. “They’ve really caught on, and are now something you buy rather than make at home,” Masubuchi added.

At the same time, many new homemade recipes have drawn attention, mainly on social media. Such recipes tend to emphasize simplicity and appearance, including “onigirazu” rice sandwiches, in which rice and fillings are simply wrapped with nori, and “stick onigiri,” in which rice and fillings are molded into narrow rolls using plastic wrap.

“There’s no one way to make onigiri. All you need is rice — you don’t even need nori, and you can add whatever fillings you like,” said Nakamura of the Onigiri Society. “If you combine your favorite fillings, you can discover the joys of onigiri, as their variations are limitless.”

Sales up at convenience stores

While overall rice consumption has declined, sales of onigiri products have been on the rise at convenience stores and other outlets. According to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry’s family income and expenditure survey, annual per capita spending on onigiri products rose from ¥1,016 (about $9 at current exchange rates) in 2000 to ¥1,401 in 2016, up roughly 40 percent.

One popular product at Seven-Eleven is “tuna-mayo” onigiri, which is filled with a mixture of mayonnaise and tuna or bonito marinated in oil. Since the company released the product in 1983, tuna-mayo onigiri has become a convenience store mainstay, with other convenience store operators following suit.

Lawson Inc.’s “Akuma no Onigiri” (Devil’s onigiri), which was released last year, has become a big hit. The product is based on rice cooked in dashi and mixed with tempura flakes and other ingredients. The product name derives from the expression “devilishly delicious.”

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