Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Continuing Zen-kitchen Study: Onigiri

One of my objectives this year is to delve deeper into the art of Japanese cuisine. I know that such an objective will not be fully realized until I physically travel to Japan and poke my nose around their kitchens, but that is a dream to be accomplished in the future. I'm going to take advantage of my access to Japanese tradition (through reading, relationships with friends and teachers, etc) to propel me through, and try to do some justice in my own kitchen.

I have a strange approach to food traditions in that I turn my nose up at "fusion", but I try to make those experiments happen in my own kitchen with what I have available. I guess I prefer to make a culinary-type fusion based on the ingredients I have at hand instead of trying to pick a few different regions (ie: Mexican-Japanese) and combining their techniques to make something happen. To me, cooking has to inspire the cook from the ground up. Creating original dishes is simply being able to dive into your toolbox, built from experiences in every kitchen you can possibly access, and use any ingredient passed to you by season or budget to make something tasty. This is how it has worked for me at perhaps I will not be able to tell you exactly how to make perfect Onigiri, but I will try my best to recreate my experiences and what I think tastes awesome.

This recipe is inspired by my experience learning how to make onigiri, sushi, and gyoza with my college Japanese teacher, as well as some technique tips from Just Hungry.

I think maybe we'll make this a trilogy...we all love trilogies, don't we? Let's start with Part I: the Onigiri!

(Japanese rice balls with seaweed)
Sushi rice
Rice vinegar
Sea salt

Seaweed (nori works, so do those "sea veggies" things they sell now)
Sesame seeds
Plastic wrap
A small bowl
1/3 C measuring cup

Onigiri has simple ingredients, the trick is in the technique. First you should prepare your sushi rice. You can make as much or as little as you want, but 2 cups of rice should make you 6 Onigiri the size of your palm. 

To set up your station you should have a little bowl of water, a salt shaker, a sheet of plastic wrap, and a dry bowl to help with shaping.

To prepare the rice, you really have to do it by taste...that is honestly how I was taught, so I'm going to describe the correct flavor to you, and leave you to your good judgement. In the rice bowl, you add in a good shake of rice vinegar, a dash of salt, and a couple Tablespoons of sugar to start. Adjust flavors to balance the rice vinegar, and to achieve the stickiness you need to hold form. You don't have to add sugar if you don't want, but that is what Onigiri tastes like to me (sushi rice), so I still add it.

To assemble, take 1/3 C of the rice mix and plop it into a small rice bowl (could also be known as a finger bowl) that is lined with plastic wrap that has been sprinkled with water and a dash of salt. This method will keep you from chapping your hands with hot rice and salt. Bring the ends of the plastic wrap together and start twisting until you have a little rice pouch at the bottom, keep twisting! This technique helps to compact the sticky rice without sticking to your hands. You can choose at this point to form them into triangles or into balls. Remove the plastic when you achieve the desired shape. I formed triangles this time and rolled a piece of seaweed to add flavor, aesthetic, and even a convenient holder against the stick factor. Alternatively, you can roll the onigiri in sesame seeds, or add fillings like beans or fish.

This is a fantastic snack to add to your lunch or something to have after work/school. I love just having them in the fridge or hanging out on the counter to pick up on the go. They remind me of the scene in Miyazaki's Spirited Away where Haku gives Chihiro an onigiri snack and she loves it so much she is brought to tears, crying out her sorrows (it was also enchanted, but that is a great way to curb someone's panic attack). It is definitely a good comfort food. I think I'm going to make some more now!

Enjoy! And stay tuned for part II, which will have my recipe for Panko Chicken ^.~

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