Friday, March 09, 2007

Great balls of rice

I lived in Japan for one summer in high school. This expanded my mind and ruined any hope I ever had of being a normal Southern California teenager whose only concerns in life were keeping her tan, driving her boyfriend's Camaro and scoring tickets to the next Journey concert.

The experience lit my passion for travel. And more. Since I went through the Youth For Understanding Toyota Scholarship, I had to write an essay on some aspect of Japanese life. I was assigned food, a topic I was only too happy to tuck into. Among the details I wrote about: In Japan, it's polite to slurp your noodles. Presentation of the food is at least (if not more) important than the taste of the food. And finally, one never eats rice by itself. Why not? It was never explained to me, as my host mother snatched my rice bowl out of my hand and rushed to cut up some fish to go on top of it. It's just not done.

I've revisited Japan several times since then. But I haven't been back since my brother got married to the wonderful Hiromi-chan about four years back. So who's gonna know that I break that cardinal rule with inappropriate regularity?

OnigidimoldI found my O-nigiri mold, you see, and suddenly felt nostalgic. And O-nigiri is one thing my kids will eat. O-nigiri (pronounced, I always heard O-nigidi, with a "d.") is a ball of sticky white rice shaped into a triangle. Typically it has a bit of fish or pickled plum in the middle. It's usually wrapped in crispy seaweed. It's the Japanese equivalent of a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich -- casual home food, not something you normally find in restaurants. Moms stack them up for their kids' lunch or picnics in clever little square containers. I ate two almost every day when I was in Japan (and washed it down with a big glass of Calpis), which might explain the sudden weight gain. My host mother made me several to take with me on the plane home but I ate them all in the airport. Oishi desu-ne??! Years later I stumbled across an O-nigiri mold at a Japanese market and promptly went home to try my hand.

As you can see in the photo above; I got the bug to make O-nigiri but not the bug to drive to Marukai and buy any nori, seasoned, crispy seaweed you can wrap O-nigiri in or eat out of hand. As I wrote about for Kids' Cuisine, my kids are all over Japanese snacks. They eat nori like potato chips. A trip to Marukai, a huge Japanese supermarket not far from where I live, is always a treat. But not today. I had no fish to tuck into the middle, either. Nor did I dare stick in a pickled plum (which I did have, deep in the back of the fridge, fermenting freely), or sprinkle the top with sesame seeds or another seasoning. These authentic touches would have rendered the rice-ball inedible to my picky-ass progeny.

So I made them unadorned. And only screwed up the rice a little bit by putting in a bit too much water. I don't do fractions well, and measurements not specifically spelled out in the instructions on the back of the bag of rice will invariably be my undoing. My fourth-grade daughter knows better than to consult me for her math homework.

These plain balls of rice, which would have so insulted my otosan, they were enthusiastically consumed by my nits. They did wonder where the seaweed was, though.


dweezila said...

you are clearly a marvel in the kitchen. No, it's not your culinary skills, though I bet you're a much better cook than you think. No, it's your humor, your if-it-doesn't-kill-them attitude. Kudos to you for trying to make the little rascals eat something other than mac and cheese every night.

great to run into your site...i will return.

sher said...

Wonderful!! I just finished a book about a young Japanese-American woman who grew up in Indiana. She loved these rice balls, but was ashamed to eat them in public. (Her family was the only Asian family in town.) I was planning to make some, but didn't realize that you could buy molds! Thanks! And you were so lucky to live in Japan!