Sunday, August 24, 2008

Watashi no "Lavu Afe-a": My Love Affair

I never did say anything about Japan, did I? Oh, yes, right... I have a one-paragraph beginning rotting in my post repository. Well, it'll never get written, I can tell you that. I am probably one of the world's worst procrastinators. Unless I have it written in front of my face in a homework log that I have to do it, it won't get done. Unless it's actually fun to do...

Oh, I'm sorry, let me introduce my lover (or lahvahhh, if you are a Sex and the City fan). This is 日本のおにぎり: Japanese Onigiri. He is my new flame, and we were inseparable for three days straight in Japan. And now, in the US, I've found him again, and even found the most sensual of delights: making onigiri myself.

But first, I must backtrack months and months ago, to our class's preliminary trip to Japantown, SF, for a scavenger hunt. *cue dreamy harp music and rippling screen*

It was lunchtime... and this year's graduating class was hungry (as usual). Some went to restaurants... some went to food stands... others went to a Japanese general store. I followed my friends to the store, and stood, nonplussed, in the refrigerator aisle, looking at the bounty of choices. Should I try the strange looking rice wrapped in tofu? Or a bento box? Or those funny looking green triangles, the rice balls that all of my friends seemed to be snatching up...

Unfortunately, I stuck to safety and got a rice bowl with teriyaki chicken (always the adventurer...). But from then, my curiosity was peaked for these popular rice balls. Unfortunately, I loathe their most popular filling, salmon, and all strong fishy tastes. That plus seaweed? Ugh, forget it.

But, but, but! Fast forward to our second week in Japan, the first day of the big groups all together, after our homestays. We were set loose in a market in Osaka to find lunch, and I had my heart set of trying onigiri, or bust...

I was excited, my heart leaping with joy as two friends and I wandered up and down the marketplace, smelling delicious things, and conspicuously pointing our fingers at things that looked gross (so American). After fifteen minutes of unabashed sightseeing, we walked into a grocery store to find something we could eat in the market, so as to resume our indulgence of strange new sights.

We found ourselves in the pre-packaged section, where my friends picked up containers of tempura and sushi rolls. However, I was drawn, inexplicably to the shelves of green triangles. There were several different kinds, it seemed, for there were many different colors of wrappers. I decided to face my fears.

"Which one is edible?" I asked my friend. He frowned, and inspected the array. He pointed to a pink-wrapped one with the word "sake" on it. "Sake," besides being a strong alcoholic drink that should not be served below 90º F, means salmon. And, it's pronounced "sa-KAY" in the correct Japanese, NOT "sa-KEE," as most Americans seem to think.

Swallowing hard, I picked up the onigiri, got a drink, and purchased them. My friends followed shortly. We searched for a place to eat, and finally ended up sneaking into another restaurant, something like a Japanese Subway.

I began to unwrap the onigiri, which was hard. It turns out there's a trick to it: they give you a little plastic strip to pull, and the plastic just comes right off, leaving the seaweed wrapped neatly around the rice. But I didn't know this. Out came the ball of rice, and out came the seaweed. I gingerly wrapped the rice in the seaweed, said a prayer, took a breath, and took a bite.

It wasn't bad, I had to admit. I took another bite, then another, and another. Then I hit the salmon in the center, which was salty and perfect. I finished off my rice ball with no difficulty, except I peeled of some of the leftover seaweed, which I hate by itself. But from then on, onigiri and I were in love.

I had onigiri again the next day, and the day after that... 

The third day, we found a little shop in Takayama. We were starving, and the restaurant we were planning to go to was closed. My four-person walking group was about done walking, we were so hungry and tired, and when we finally saw the tiny little man and wife in the tiny little shop, we felt like celebrating.

We tried to make him understand that we wanted four onigiri, two with salmon, two with rice only, for out two vegetarians. My friend "C" and I struggled with our Japanese.

Me: Anou... {Ummm...} Ni? sake to onigiri kudasai? {Two (wrong form of number) onigiri with salmon?}
Man: *looked amused* Futatsu sake to? {Two (correct form of number) with salmon?}
Me: Yeah, hai, hai.
C: Chotto matte kudasai {Wait a minute, please}. To... futatsu onigiri.... gohan dake... {And...two onigiri... rice only}
Me:  Yeah, gohan only...

Finally, we got it across what we wanted. I waited for him to hand us some prepackaged onigiri, but it was to my surprise when he and his wife went to the back of the shop and began to make them by hand.

They were handed back to us in clear plastic takeout containers. We embarrassedly thanked the shopkeepers, and sat down on spindly chairs at a little table outside the booth/store. We bit into our onigiri. They were probably the best thing we'd tasted on the trip so far; the rice was still warm; the salmon seemed freshly cooked and seasoned. It was delicious.

Almost six months later, my craving for the salty delight became so overwhelming that I just had to have it again. I tried a packaged one, but it was disgusting. So, I decided to make it myself. With the help of a friend who also went to Japan with her own school, we used the molds I bought two months ago at Daiso Japan.

So, here is our rough procedure:

Cook some sushi rice according to the package (don't add anything to it; onigiri usually is made with plain rice).

Put about a tablespoon of butter on a glass baking dish and place in a hunk of salmon. Salt generously, and bake in a 350 or 400º oven (can't remember which, sorry)

Once the salmon is fully cooked, about 10 minutes, let it cool. Then flake it into a bowl.

Place some rice in the bottom of a mold and top it with about a tablespoon of salmon. Cover the rest with rice. Replace the lid of the mold and press. Unmold, and wrap in nori (seaweed).

You can shape these by hand, but this is much easier. Itadakimasu! (Japanese version of bon appètit)


Kristen said...

Hey there - the adopt a blogger matches are up on my blog.
Thanks for participating :)

kate smudges said...

Just discovered your blog through Kate in the Kitchen's blog --

TKIngalls said...

I've just dicovered your blog. After reading this entry I just had to go back and read everything. I have bookmarked several of your entries (this one especially). I just wanted to say great blog! Keep going! Please? Thanks for the recipes and advice.

Alicia said...

I can just add "Ditto" to tkingalls comment. I bookmarked several things to try. I'm glad you kept blogging and didn't give up when you weren't getting any comments. It takes time, I know cuz only my sister reads mine right now :)

I love that your so young and have such a love of cooking. I myself have a 27yr old daughter and a 23yr old son and the closest they come to cooking is brownies out of a box.

Keep up the cooking and I look forrward to reading your blog everyday.

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