An onigiri is a rice ball. The verb nigiru meaning to shape or mould something in your hand(s), not unlike, um, a rice ball. It’s also important to note that rice balls are the standard, go-to, easy-peasy meal of choice all over Japan (what a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was to my generation when I was growing up).
It’s not an exaggeration to say that since coming to Japan I’ve made hundreds of these sticky fellas. I’ve wetted and salted my hands, tucked salmon or tuna or pickled plums inside, and squish-squish-squished the rice into an onigiri. Or at least some malformed, gaijin version of one. Sometimes I even wrapped them in nori-seaweed.
But, alas, the boy-child has moved out of the house, and my husband doesn’t eat rice, nor do I. So no more rice balls.
That is until just recently, when I discovered someone kicked the whole onigiri meal up a notch. It’s this thing called onigirazu (<–That’s the negative form of the verb right there.) *Not* to shape or mould something in your hand. Brilliant. Just brilliant.
After further study, I found that not only do you *not* shape the rice in your hands (which if we’re being honest here is actually the most exciting part of making the darned things), but you can add any ingredients you can possible dream up. You’re not stuck with the traditional salmon, tuna, and pickled plum fare.
So I thought, hey, why not? I’ll give them a try. Here’s my second attempt at making onigirazu. (First attempt = hideous = me weeping into my apron.)
First, you decide what you want in your not-a-rice-ball rice ball.
Mmm, pastrami, cheese, lettuce, cucumber. Why not?
Next, on a piece of Saran Wrap you lay out nori (a special kind of nori that as far as I can tell is only different in that it is salted and more expensive). Then spread on some rice, thinly. Thinly now. Don’t make the same mistake I made that first time. #rememberhideous
Then you pile on all your goodies, in any old order, I guess. Mayonnaise FTW! Top all this off with another thin layer of rice (Not shown because it would cover up the yummies).
Pro tip: If you put the cheese on top of the warm rice it gets melty~.
Next (and this is the hard part), you fold those four corners over to make a little package. This is where the Saran Wrap comes in handy. To do it properly you kind of have to hold the whole thing down and press on it, so the rice warms the nori and softens it and it forms a nice shape. (Seriously, this isn’t as easy as they make it sound, and also…it feels a whole lot like “moulding” in your hands when you’re doing it. Just sayin’.)
But then it finally keeps its shape and you get to retrieve your sharpest knife and you cut that puppy in half (or in fours for the wee ones!)
They’re veritable rice sandwiches! Which might not sound as melodious as onigirazu, but hey(!), if it’s got lettuce and mayonnaise and some sort of luncheon meat on it, it’s a sandwich in my book. (Bread’s entirely overrated.)
The above is kinda my recipe, but if you Google around you can find all sorts of great fillings. Smoked salmon and cream cheese, BLTs, chicken salad and lettuce, spam even!
There you have it. This new (but actually it’s been around for 25 years, just no one knew about it) thing that’s happening in Japan: The not-a-rice ball rice ball. Or, as I like to call them, Rice Sammiches!
And for my next trick: peanut butter and jelly onigirazu.
What? Why not?
*There are loads of great sites out there you can search in English, but here’s one in Japanese that has a bunch of photos to give you all kinds of ideas.