Originally uploaded by wjharrison77.
On leaving university I moved to Japan to live and work for a year. I was based in Tomakomai, a small-ish town an hour south of Sapporo on Japan’s north island, Hokkaido. It was an amazing experience in a million different ways. Looking back on it now I find that many of my memories are based around food. This wouldn’t be surprising if I had been as interested in food then as I am now, but I really wasn’t.
In fact I’d go a little further than indifference and say that I almost had a problem with food. Nothing as serious or devastating as anorexia or bulimia, please understand: I just couldn’t stand people watching me eat or expecting me to eat. If I felt I was being watched or if I felt under pressure to eat something I suddenly lost my appetite. Restaurants and other people’s dining rooms were places to be avoided unless I was dining with my nearest and dearest only.
Well, Japan certainly cured me of that problem.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Japanese are one of the most welcoming and friendly people out there. You may always feel like an outsider in the country but you are an extremely popular outsider! The result of this was that I ate out several times a week in restaurants and, occasionally, friends homes. Being a 5”10 (178cm), foreign female in a town with very few gaijin indeed I was a matter of interest everywhere I went. In restaurants, in particular, people were intrigued to find out what I liked or didn’t like. It wasn’t terribly unusual to have entire restaurants watching me eat, even occasionally interrupting my meal to tell me that I wasn’t holding my chopsticks correctly or to comment on the size of my breasts.
This should have been my worst nightmare but I just found it funny. Problem solved.
Do I miss Japanese food? Sometimes. There were foods I loathed, including sea urchin (AKA fishy, slimy sand) and sea snail (no-one told me the black tip was poisonous so I politely ate the entire minging thing and was violently ill for days afterwards). And there were foods I loved: shabu shabu (simmering pot of stock to dip meat and veg into); sashimi (much nicer than its ricey cousin, sushi); Melty Kissses ( the most divine chocolate EVER) and, finally, onigiri.
Onigiri is generally translated as “rice ball”, a misnomer if ever I heard one as they are rarely spherical. I absolutely adored them and kept one in my bag at all times in case of an attack of the munchies. Only recently did I try to make them myself and discovered how ridiculously easy it is.
250g Japanese/sushi rice
350 ml water
3 sheets of nori (seaweed) – cut in half diagonally
Filling e.g. tuna, salmon (cooked or not), softened bonito flakes, cucumber, avocado, red pepper..
- To cook the rice – Add the unwashed rice and the water to a heavy based pan and bring to the boil. Reduce heat to medium, cover and cook for 10 mins. Remove from the heat but do not remove the lid! Leave for 10 mins to finish cooking process.
- Meanwhile, fill a bowl with cold, well-salted water and layout fillings and nori triangles ready to be used.
- Tip hot rice into a bowl (the rice must be hot if it is to stick together). Wet hands in salted water (this will not only make the rice stickier, it will also season the rice and enable you to mould the hot grains comfortably). Use a wooden spoon to ladle some rice into your hand.
- Mould rice into a ball and use finger to make deep indent. Fill with tuna or cucumber or whatever filling you fancy. Mould rice over filling and shape ball into a thick triangle (see here for visual instructions).
- Lay out nori triangle with the widest corner pointing at you. Place rice triangle on top with the corner pointing away from you. Fold nori corners into middle of rice triangle and seal with a little salted water.
Eat hot or cold.
NB If your nori is very brittle hold it over boiling water for a couple of seconds to soften.