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ONIGIRI

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Special to the Times

Onigiri--perhaps the most popular food in Japan after the hamburger--go back more than a millennium but are as contemporary as Pokemon.

They’re often called rice balls in English, but that hardly begins to tell the story. Onigiri are made of cooked Japanese rice, usually pressed into an equilateral triangle about three inches across and one inch thick, but they might be cylindrical or ball-shaped. At the center there’s often a treasure--a pinch of grilled salmon, some cod roe, a Japanese pickled plum or a dollop of kombu (kelp) marinated in soy sauce. Sometimes onigiri come dusted with sesame seeds or flakes of dried fish, or you can wrap the whole concoction in a sheet of crisp dried nori seaweed and create what looks like a miniature Noguchi sculpture.

Some food historians say that onigiri--the word comes from a root meaning “made by gripping with the hands,” as in nigiri-sushi--got their start as road food for soldiers during the Heian Period (794-1192); the saltiness of the fillings is said to have acted as a preservative. Others say that onigiri were originally doled out by nobles to peasants gathered outside their gates.

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More recently, generations of Japanese schoolkids have packed onigiri in their lunch bentos, golfers and hikers take them--along with cans of green or oolong tea--for long days in the great outdoors, and Japanese airlines have been known to serve them as mid-flight snacks.

“My baachan [grandma] used to make onigiri as an after-school snack,” recalls Kyle Inouye of Sherman Oaks. “I suspect it was to fill my mouth up, so I’d be quiet for once. But like anything she would make for me, it was the most amazing thing to eat, even though it was mostly just rice pushed together.”

Many visitors to Japan don’t consider that they’ve actually arrived until they’ve eaten an onigiri.

Onigiri can also be grilled over the same fire used for chicken or fish. The outside should turn a little crisp, and when an onigiri is brushed with soy sauce toward the end of the cooking process, it takes on a nutty sweetness. These yaki-onigiri (from the same root “yaki,” meaning to grill, as in yakitori), sometimes take the place of dessert in Japanese grill restaurants.

The modern onigiri has practically gone free-form. Bite into one and you might find a distinctly nontraditional filling: mayonnaise-y tuna salad, karashi mentaiko (spicy cod roe), negi-toro (raw fatty tuna with sliced green onion) or ingredients of Korean origin such as kimchi or yaki-niku (garlicky grilled beef). In Hawaii, where onigiri are called musubi (a name that in Japan is used only for roundish onigiri), the most popular variety is topped with a slab of Spam brushed with teriyaki sauce.

Onigiri may have once come courtesy of nobles, but in today’s Japan they come courtesy of 7-Eleven or other convenience stores. In Los Angeles, you can find them at Japanese grocers. On either side of the ocean, less than a dollar can buy you an onigiri in a nifty plastic wrapping with a special sheath to keep the nori crisp.

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They’re also easy to make at home, starting with warm cooked rice. Inouye recalls his grandmother washing her hands, “and while they were still not fully dried she’d rub table salt on them as if it was lotion, pick up the rice and sculpt away.”

Different families favor different shapes for onigiri. “In my family we make onigiri in a shape called tawaragata, kind of like a capsule,” says Kari Hynek, a native of Japan now living in Los Angeles. “But there are rectangle families, ball families and triangle families.”

Though shaping onigiri seems simple enough, it helps to buy a mold. Not only will onigiri molds allow you to turn out perfect shapes even if you’re not a natural sculptor, they are also some of the coolest kitchen gadgets around.

One, called the norimaki nigiri, looks like a pup tent with slots like on a miter box. You line the inside of the mold with a sheet of nori seaweed or plastic wrap, layer in rice, fillings and more rice, and clamp the whole thing down with the base of the mold. Then you use a knife to slice through the slots to form the individual triangles. Genius. You can also get molds in the tawaragata shape, or like dainty flora, although some of them make only one onigiri at a time.

To wrap your onigiri, Japanese markets sell packages of toasted nori (yakinori). And in case you’re planning on eating your onigiri later, the Yamamotoyama company has thoughtfully wrapped the nori sheets in the same sort of plastic sleeve you find with the commercially packaged onigiri. Note that yaki-onigiri are not wrapped in nori. Heavens, no.

If you prefer your non-yaki-onigiri undressed, a popular simple preparation is to sprinkle them with furikake: flakes of dried fish, seaweed, dried egg or sesame seeds, sold in jars with shaker tops and traditionally used to flavor rice for kids. Yaki-onigiri might be garnished with katsuo-bushi, flakes of dried bonito, or with a couple of slices of yellow Japanese pickled radish (takuan).

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Think of something else you’d like to try inside? Go ahead. Be creative. Have a ball--or a triangle.

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Platter from the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles. Onigiri from Mishima, 8474 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles.

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Basic Onigiri

Active Work: 10 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Japanese short-grain rice and nori are available at Asian markets.

1 cup Japanese short-grain rice

Salt

About 2 ounces grilled salmon

2 (7x6-inch) sheets nori

Place the rice and 1 1/4 cups cold water in a saucepan and soak for 30 minutes. Bring to a boil over medium heat, lower the heat, cover and simmer until the liquid has been absorbed, 20 minutes. Let stand, covered, 15 minutes.

If you don’t have an onigiri mold, wet your hands in water, dust with salt if desired, and divide the fresh rice (it should still be warm) into 4 balls. Place each ball on a sheet of plastic wrap to make molding easier.

Poke a hole in each rice ball. Divide the salmon evenly among the balls, filling the holes; smooth the rice over the filling. Form each ball into the shape of your choice. For a triangle, set the rice onto the palm of your hand, and form the triangle by holding the other hand in an A-shape. Note that the sides of the triangle should be flat.

If the nori sheets are not perforated, slice each in half horizontally. To wrap a triangular onigiri, stand it up horizontally about halfway down the sheet, so that the ends touch each side, then fold the ends of the sheet around it.

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Serve immediately so that the nori stays crisp. If you cannot serve immediately, wrap the onigiri in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator, then wrap in nori just before serving. That is, of course, unless you don’t mind soggy nori.

If you have an onigiri mold, line the mold with plastic wrap.

Line the bottom of the mold with a layer of rice, and make a line of the filling of your choice down the center on top of the rice. Then fill the rest of the mold with more rice and press with the base of the mold.

Using a sharp knife, slice the rice through the slits in the mold. Remove the base, and slide the onigiri out gently. Remove the onigiri from the plastic and wrap them in nori as above.

4 onigiri. Each onigiri: 84 calories; 11 mg sodium; 9 mg cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 0 saturated fat; 12 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.56 gram fiber.

Variations: Fill each onigiri with a Japanese pickled plum rather than the grilled salmon. Or, soak 1/4 cup dried bonito flakes in 4 teaspoons of soy sauce, then divide the filling among the onigiri.

Or, instead of filling the onigiri, sprinkle them with your choice of furikake (Japanese flavorings for rice) once they’re formed. Standing the triangles up and sprinkling them over the tops makes for a nice presentation. Garnish with Japanese pickles.

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Instead of wrapping the entire onigiri, slice the nori into strips and wrap around the edges, then sprinkle the flat parts with furikake. If you’re using an onigiri mold, you can line the mold with a sheet of nori instead of plastic wrap to achieve the same effect.

Mix black sesame seeds (kurogoma) in with the rice before forming your rice balls. In this case, most kitchens won’t wrap the onigiri in a full sheet of nori.

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Yaki-Onigiri

Active Work Time: 10 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Japanese short-grain rice, takuan pickles and dried bonito flakes are available at Asian markets.

1 cup Japanese short-grain rice

Salt, optional

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon soy sauce

Sliced takuan pickles or dried bonito flakes (katsuo-bushi)

Place the rice and 1 1/4 cups cold water in a saucepan and soak for 30 minutes. Bring to a boil over medium heat, lower the heat, cover and simmer until the liquid has been absorbed, 20 minutes. Let stand, covered, 15 minutes.

Heat a charcoal grill or grill pan over low heat.

If you don’t have an onigiri mold, wet your hands in water, dust with salt if desired, and divide the fresh rice (it should still be warm) into 4 balls. Place each ball on a sheet of plastic wrap to make molding easier.

Place the onigiri on the grill or grill pan (the grill’s bars should not be too far apart). Turn over when the edges start to turn brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Turn over again if necessary until both sides are light brown--be careful not to let the rice burn. Brush one side lightly with soy sauce and place back on the grill, soy sauce side down, for about 30 seconds. Repeat with the other side.

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Serve immediately, and garnish the plate with takuan pickles or a small mound of bonito flakes topped with a splash of soy sauce.

4 servings. Each serving: 59 calories; 338 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 12 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.61 gram fiber.

Variation: Roll the edges of the triangles in roasted brown sesame seeds before grilling.

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