GREAT BALLS OF RICE!
Classic Snack Gets New Lease on Life
January 21, 2003
(onigiri) have long been a staple of Japanese picnics and lunch boxes. Made by wrapping dried seaweed around a triangular-shaped portion of rice, normally with a pickled plum, piece of grilled fish, or other filling inside, onigiri are simple and quick to prepare and perfect for taking on outings. There is evidence that soldiers of the Heian period (794-1192) used to carry them, so they have a long history. The triangular shape of most rice balls has not changed. But recently there have been major changes in consumption patterns. In the past, onigiri were usually made at home and eaten by family members, but now they are a top-selling product in convenience stores, and some cafes have even opened with onigiri as their signature dish.
Changes Began in the 1970s
The traditional image of the onigiri is of a bulging clump of rice, perhaps filled with grilled salmon or kelp, that has been lovingly shaped and wrapped in dried seaweed by a mother. It was the advent of the convenience store that altered this image decisively. Right from the start of the convenience-store era in the 1970s onigiri were one of the stores' key products, and they retain that status today.
The development of packaging that separates the rice from the dried seaweed, keeping the seaweed crisp, and that allows consumers to do the wrapping without the rice sticking to their hands, has helped to make store-bought onigiri popular. So has a wider range of fillings, some of which add an overseas touch to this venerable Japanese food. Chopped tuna and mayonnaise
, for example, has been a hit ever since convenience stores began selling rice balls with this filling. At around ¥100 ($0.83 at ¥120 to the dollar) each, store-bought onigirihave become a staple of life.
The Quest for a Superior Rice Ball
The latest development in the rice-ball world has been the appearance of onigiri cafes. These specialty outlets are a product of the cafe boom that has been in full swing for several years and of the general revival of interest in Japanese style. Fashionable onigiri cafes have been appearing all over the place. In the Oji area of northern Tokyo, the fast-food chain First-Kitchen has opened an onigiri eatery called Onigiri Kitchen Om's, while in the central Tokyo district of Aoyama, Reins International, the firm that runs the yakiniku (Korean-style barbecued beef) chain Gyukaku, has launched an onigiri cafe called Ony.
The options for working women seeking a light meal had previously been limited to traditional fast-food restaurants or cafes offering little more variety than sandwiches and spaghetti.Onigiri cafes have struck a chord with young women and - unusually for fast-food stores - with middle-aged people, who are often reluctant to enter hamburger restaurants. The cafes offer a level of service not available in convenience stores. In some, for example, fresh rice balls are shaped by hand after the order is taken.
Rice-ball fillings are another area in which the quest for that something extra is gathering pace. In department-store basements, whose rich selection of foods make them havens for gastronomes, onigiri made with only the finest ingredients are selling well. These deluxe treats are made with top-quality rice transported direct from where it is grown. Even the water in which the rice is cooked is specially selected, and luxury fillings like bamboo shoots, aromatic matsutake mushrooms, and crab deliver a truly classy taste that differs markedly from that of machine-made onigiri. Convenience stores, too, are looking to tempt customers with higher quality. The 7-Eleven chain has launched a new line of gourmet onigiri that cost around ¥150 ($1.25), a little more than the chain's standard rice balls, and are handmade using select ingredients. Varieties include rice cooked with sea bream and charcoal-barbecued mushrooms.
Satisfying Health-Conscious Consumers
Another reason for the recent popularity of rice balls is that they now appeal not only to people seeking a tasty, convenient snack but also to the increasing number of consumers who are concerned about health. Many fast foods, including hamburgers, are cooked using oil, which inevitably makes them high in calories. The main ingredients in onigiri, on the other hand, are rice and seaweed. Even if they contain fillings like meat or mayonnaise, rice balls are modest in size and therefore unlikely to expand the waistline.
But what may be the most subtle attraction of rice balls is their handmade feel. The normal fare served up by fast-food chains looks and tastes the same no matter where you go. But when you have onigiri prepared just for you or add the seaweed wrapping yourself, you get the warmth of the personal touch.