Onigiri: Japan’s Soul Food

My Home is nestled between mountains on the island of Kyu-shu, Japan. It sits under the elementary school my mother attended and stands proudly in front of the dormant volcano known as Mount Eboshi. This small, one story home is where my fondest childhood memories play, where I slept every weekend in anticipation for the adventures my grandmother would take me on early the next morning. Sometimes we’d go to the zoo or the aquarium; sometimes, she’d take me to her sister’s house where I would catch frogs with my cousins. My favorite destination were the Ninety-Nine Islands, just a short drive towards the beach. It is a beautiful display of nature, with over a hundred islands of all sizes scattered throughout the ocean; as the sun sets, they sparkle like spilled jades. 

No matter where we were going, I would wake up at the crack of dawn to the quiet sounds of my grandmother making onigiri in the kitchen. Cooking was never her forte, but her onigiris were always my favorite because they were made with true love. She’d be facing away from me, towards the sink. My grandmother has always been a hard-worker, dedicated to others’ happiness; even though she spends a lot of time physically exerting herself, her back is always straight and her shoulders are always relaxed. Sometimes, if I wasn’t feeling too lazy, I’d stand next to her and watch as her plump, aged hands gently molded the rice into firm triangles. “Every squeeze has to have a loving thought,” she’d say to me each time, “otherwise it won’t taste good.” That is why onigiri is Japan’s soul food. Simple ingredients, easy to make, and a staple in every Japanese home; the process of making onigiri must be loving, and it is crucial that this is felt in each bite. 

The filling is up to each person to decide. While I prefer it without any filling, some traditional choices include ume-boshi, which is a pickled plum, or sake, also known as salted salmon. The amount of salt used varies depending on the family, and while I feel onigiris are incomplete without a nori wrapping, this is optional as well. Onigiri has been a staple in Japanese cuisine since even before the 11th Century. It is simply rice balled into a shape using gentle squeezes, salted and seasoned depending on preference. The only requirement is that it is made with love, and that the process itself is mindful and tranquil. I consider the creation of onigiri to be a valuable tradition; it connects us to our roots, our culture, and most importantly, our family. However, I worry that it is a dying tradition. While it is great that onigiri can be bought in convenience stores and made using plastic rice shapers, I believe it is crucial for youths living in and outside of Japan to keep the tradition going. After all, onigiri embodies the values of Japan. It emphasizes mindful practices and taking time in the day to focus on nothing but what is in front of you; it calls upon the creator to feel love and gratitude towards the receiver, while also stirring up those same emotions in the person eating the onigiri. Whenever I feel homesick for the house nestled below Mount Eboshi or nostalgic for my grandmother’s presence, I call upon her in my heart from across the world to be present with me as I make onigiri for myself, holding the same intentions she has whenever she takes the time to make them – to give love and gratitude to those around me. And guess what? It works. In those quiet moments, I am home.

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