Today’s blog recounts a simple chain of events that says a remarkable amount about cooking, friends, knowledge and inspiration.
One recent afternoon, my friend Debbie and her Japanese friend made onigiri, a sticky Japanese rice triangle topped with a strip of dried seaweed. These sticky rice creations, a staple in Debbie’s friend’s house, are a quick and easy meal to pack in bento boxes for lunch or dinner. Debbie was so inspired by her friend, that as soon as her cooking date was over, Debbie got the itch to demonstrate her newly acquired skill to me. After schlepping all three of her kids to a Japanese market for the ingredients (short grain rice, seaweed strips, seasoning flakes and dried salmon) she was ready to teach. We just needed to find the time, which we squeezed in later the next week.
Debbie moistened her hands with water, placed a mound of warm rice in the palm of her left hand, and began to mold and turn. With her thumbs tucked above her other fingers, I watched as she shaped the rice into tidy triangles, making a hole to hide dried flakes of salmon and then topping it with a neat strip of seaweed. With a few simple squeezes and turns, she recreated the simple steps her friend taught her the week before. As she worked, I asked why the triangle shapes were called rice balls, but she chuckled, said she didn’t know and had just taken her friend’s word.
My curiosity led me to delve into the history of onigri, which I learned had been a Japanese staple since the 7th century, before the use of chopsticks. White rice is formed and filled with fish, roe and even pickled fruits, fillings which are sold today in jars in Japanese markets.
These tasty treats are no different than our own modern solutions for a quick, satisfying meal that comes in small packages. For my family, it’s a quesadilla, empanada, burrito or dumpling and other quick and easy food. Interestingly, we modern moms aren’t so different from our Japanese ancestors! I did find out that rice balls can be round, rectangular or triangular, but not why the various shapes are called balls.
When it was my turn to take a stab at, I struggled at first with the simple task of shaping my rice into a triangle. I’m not that coordinated (or artistic) and tasks that require crimping, folding or decorating take me a bit of practice sometimes. But once I realized that I didn’t have to use my left hand (as my left-handed friend did moments before) I switched to the right and got into a groove.
It didn’t take long for us to make a platter of these rice treats, which my kids would later enjoy as an afterschool snack. But I left Debbie’s house with more than a plate of food. I left with a new bit of culinary knowledge, a new skill and a connection to an unfamiliar heritage. I also had a simple story of how inspiration moves from one friend to another, as we teach, share and enjoy foods from our own unique cultures — another example of what cooking with friends is about.
To learn how to make Japanese Rice Balls, I found this useful instructional article on Serious Eats: http://www.seriouseats.com/2011/01/how-to-make-onigiri-japanese-sushi-rice-balls.html
PS — I am sure the rice balls can be made into heart shapes! Happy Valentine’s Day everyone.