Every culture has a similar treat. Often, it’s a humble lunchbox item, usually eaten with hands and simply prepared, always endearing. It might be some recipe brought by grandma from the old country, like empanadas or pierogi. Or at least something that makes you remember her. For me it’s onigiri, or rice balls.
These are simple rice balls with a bit of something in the middle. Usually, but not always wrapped in nori. (Picture a giant piece of maki sushi.) Japanese being the masters of wrapping, have elevated onigiri to something that always makes me say “how do they do that?”
Everyone has seen ubiquitous supermarket sushi. One of the many problems with supermarket sushi is that the nori is soggy and damp, the rice usually is hard and cold. Part of the joy of sushi is having the crisp bite of nori give way to delicately seasoned rice and a savory filling.
Onigiri, if left to supermarket product experts would be just like soggy, chewy, icky thing that supermarket sushi is.
I first encountered onigiri to go in Japan at Narita Airport. It’s a long, long flight. I was hungry. I was eager to taste all of Japan. I couldn’t believe my eyes at the first vending machine, when I saw onigiri. I was prepared to be disappointed, but bought one. It looked just like this one.