Tarako (salted cod roe) onigiri recipe

Here’s another classic onigiri recipe: Tarako onigiri. Tarako (cod roe) is sold raw in Japanese markets, usually in packages of several small caviar sacs. (When I was a child, I always thought they looked like tongues!)

The bright red color is beautiful, and you can choose from regular or spicy. For onigiri, regular tarako is used more often.

While raw tarako is delicious over hot rice (no need to add any flavoring, as it’s already very salty), for onigiri, I prefer it cooked. You can do this by placing a few sacs under the broiler or on a stovetop grill until the red color turns pink.

 

 

Making Takaro Onigiri, step-by-step

1. Cut the cooked tarako into 1/3" slices (reserving one slice per onigiri) and break the rest of the caviar up with your fingers. You'll have to remove the outer film, which can be a little tedious. For the best results, try to break it up as finely as possible.
2. Mix the tarako into hot rice, incorporating it evenly, until it turns a nice shade of pale pink. As with the takano recipe, you can mix only a portion of rice in a large bowl - as shown here - or use separate bowls. I usually make a variety of onigiri, so I don't make more than a few of each kind.
3. Scoop a handful of rice into the palm of your hand (after wetting but not salting them. In this case the tarako is very salty, so you don't want to add extra salt)
4. Make an indentation into the rice and fill it with a piece of tarako.
5. Press - firmly but not too hard - turning and pressing the onigiri in your hands until it forms a triangle. You might want to use plastic wrap to keep your hands clean for this one, because the tarako does tend to get messy.

If you’ve never tried tarako before, I wish I could describe the experience to you. It’s not only the rich, somewhat smoky and intense caviar flavor, but the dry mouth-feel of the tarako that is so nice. Tarako is delicious when tossed with spaghetti and flavored with dashi — the umami effect is a little like Parmesan cheese.

Takana (Japanese mustard green) onigiri recipe

Takana (Japanese mustard green) is wonderfully bitter and slightly spicy; a perfect leafy vegetable for making tsukemono (pickles). You might be able to find takana tsukemono at your local Japanese market, and if you’re lucky, it will come whole, in huge leaves that can be cut down to bite-sized pieces for tucking into the corner of a bento, or to wrap around onigiri, which we’ll do here.

Takana is good for you as well. It has loads of vitamin A and K. I also think that having at least one tsukemono onigiri in a grouping of onigiri provides a nice contrast of color, texture and flavor, especially when eaten with rich, oily fillings like ikura (salmon caviar).

Making takana onigiri, step-by-step

1. Chop up one takana leaf into a fine dice. Mix well with hot rice so that it is evenly incorporated. If you are making a variety of onigiri, you can just mix the takana into part of a bowl of rice -- or if you're more practical -- use separate bowls or save the takana for last
2. Wet and salt hands, and press firmly (but not too hard, remember?), turning and pressing the rice until you form a triangle
3. Stretch a takana leaf out flat and trim away the heavy central stem. You should have a piece large enough to wrap comfortably around the onigiri. And if you're picky (like me) you can orient the veins of the leaf in a pleasant way. You can see what I mean with the last photo.
4. Wrap the takana tightly around the onigiri, one side at a time. It's a little like wrapping a present. The thin -- yet surprisingly strong -- leaf somehow stays in place nicely
5. The finished takana onigiri. Now you can see what I mean about the veins. I don't know if anyone would notice, but I like the way this looks.

OK, as long as we’re talking fussy, take a look at the photo in the Onigiri Basics article and see how you can also arrange a selection of onigiri in a pleasing way, altering colors and flavors. This kind of thing comes natural to many Japanese. It’s part of what I like to call our “power of five” thinking.

Salt-grilled sake (salmon) onigiri recipe

Sake (salmon) is one of THE classic onigiri fillings. To be flavorful enough for a proportionately large amount of rice, it must be liberally salted before grilling or broiling. Here’s a simple recipe for salt-grilled salmon. It should be well-cooked for using in onigiri — not too soft.

Once the salmon is prepared in this way, it stays fresh for a few days and can be kept in the fridge to have on hand for placing in bentos and using for ochazuke (rice with tea) as well as for filling onigiri.

You’ll first need to break the salmon into bite-sized pieces before filling the onigiri. The amount of  salmon pictured here (about 4 oz) can make four or five onigiri. If you haven’t read the previous blog about onigiri basics, which include making rice and getting ready, you might want to do so now.

Making Onigiri, step-by-step

 

 

1. Wet hands with water and coat liberally with salt.
2. Scoop 1/2 cup of rice into the palm of your hand. It will be a little hot at first, so take care!
3. Make an indentation in the middle of the rice.
4. Place a piece of salmon in the indentation. The piece shown here is rather large for onigiri, but I prefer more filling. It's a matter of taste.
5. Press the rice firmly, but not too hard, or the onigiri will become too dense.
6. Keep pressing and turning the rice, shaping it into a triangle. The trick is to work fast so that the rice doesn't start sticking to your hands. If this happens, dip your hands into water again. Alternatively, you can cheat and use plastic wrap. (It's OK, lots of people use plastic wrap!)
7. Wrap a 1" strip of nori (seaweed) around the onigiri. This not only adds flavor, but keeps the diner's hands from getting sticky. Some people prefer to add the nori just before serving so that the nori still retains a crisp texture. Other people like the nori to soften and meld with the rice.
8. The completed onigiri is a beautiful thing, no matter how imperfect the shape. The challenge now is to keep yourself from devouring it at once!

We’ll feature other classic onigiri recipes during September. I also thought it might be fun to gather some unconventional recipes for later in the year. We’d love to hear from you if you have anything to share.

Onigiri Basics

Onigiri, or rice balls, are often described as Japan’s equivalent of the sandwich. Humble, simple and basic to the core, they are made simply from pressing hot rice around some kind of savory filling and forming it into a shape (usually triangular). The name comes from the act of pressing (nigiru means “to press” or “grasp”), and is plural, because they are usually eaten, not one, but two or more at a time. You might recognize the word from nigiri sushi (rice topped with seafood, etc.) as well, since it’s the same action; it’s just that the result is smaller and perhaps more refined.

Onigiri may be humble when compared to sushi, but they are no less loved. We’ve grown up eating onigiri, enjoying them on outings and in school bentos, car trips and the like, for they are the perfect portable food: Filling, simple, convenient and satisfying, meant to be eaten with one’s hands and complete unto itself; no fancy sauces or condiments needed. Additionally, the salt on the outside acts as a preservative, keeping them fresh on a day’s journey (useful in the days before coolers and ice packs).

Everyone has their favorite, and our memories reflect upon the shape and texture of the onigiri our mothers’ hands created: A symbol of home, of family, and perhaps even what it means to be Japanese.

We’ll cover the basic techniques for making onigiri starting with this, our first in a series of blog posts.

Preparation
Good quality rice is the most important ingredient for onigiri, whether it’s cooked in a rice cooker or on the stovetop. For the best results, use hot, freshly made rice, and use ONLY Japanese rice. Other types will not be sticky enough and will not produce the right results.

Since the beauty of onigiri is having a variety of fillings, it is important to lay out the ingredients on a work surface so that everything is close at hand. This means cooking and seasoning the fillings beforehand. We’ll cover each type in separate recipes to come.

Typical ingredients include — above, from left to right: tarako (salted cod roe); ikura (salmon caviar); sake (salt-grilled salmon) and umeboshi (pickled plum). You’ll also need a bowl of water to keep your hands wet, a dish of salt and some nori (seaweed) cut into strips.

Ready? Let’s start with salt-grilled sake (salmon) onigiri, one of the classics. We’ll post illustrated step-by-step instructions tomorrow.

Tableware, from left to right: tarako in a vintage Bizen clam-shaped bowl; ikura in a small bowl lined with gold leaf; salmon in a vintage ridged plate; umeboshi in an Oribe mukozuke by Tomonori Koyama; nori on a Bizen plate; salt in a 19th century mugiwara lid, used as a dish; water in a red Bizen bowl; rice in an antique Mishima bowl. Select items available on Mizuya.

Rice with Chicken and Bunashimeji Mushrooms

Savory Japan’s recipe section is updated with a hearty Autumn menu that’s perfect for cool days like today. Central to the meal is this very simple takikomi gohan (flavored rice) recipe with chicken and bunashimeji mushrooms. This is SO much simpler than the takikomi gohan recipe we featured last fall. It only takes 15 minutes to put together, and the rice cooker does the rest.

Takikomi means “to simmer into”, and this recipe does just that: by simmering everything together,  the rice is infused with the rich flavor of chicken. In a departure from traditional Japanese recipes, we used butter to saute the chicken and mushrooms, and chicken stock instead of dashi. The result is a rich rice dish that is a little like Spanish arroz con pollo, but soy sauce and sake give it a uniquely Japanese flavor.

We served this with roasted rakkyo, which is difficult to find in the West. Shallots or pearl onions would do nicely. Just roast them with a little oil, and then glaze with soy sauce mixed with a little sugar.

INGREDIENTS
3 cups uruchi mai (white rice) or haiga mai (half-polished brown rice)
3 1/2 cups chicken stock
2 boneless chicken thighs
1 package bunashimeji mushrooms
4″ x 4″ square of kombu (kelp)
1 tbsp butter
1 tsp salt
freshly ground pepper
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp sake

DIRECTIONS
Dice the chicken thighs into 1/2″ cubes. Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Set aside for a few minutes. Cut off the bottom inedible portion of the bunashimeji mushrooms and discard. Cut mushrooms into 1/2 inch pieces.

Saute chicken in butter over high heat until the outsides are seared. Add mushrooms saute for 2 minutes.

Measure, wash and drain the rice, and add to a rice cooker. Add the chicken and mushroom mixture. Add chicken stock, sake and soy sauce. Mix.  If desired, place the kombu on top of the rice. Turn on rice cooker.

When the rice is finished, remove the kombu and gently mix (the mushrooms tend to float to the top). Taste to adjust seasonings. If desired, add extra butter for flavor.

Serves 6

By the way, the photo above was done to show different varieties of rice for the current issue of Kyoto Visitor’s Guide. We normally wouldn’t serve rice this way; we just wanted to show the colors of autumn against the vivid green of the Raku box.

Inekari, the rice harvest

September is the month for inekari — the rice harvest — in Japan, and to celebrate the season we feature this most vital grain —  the heart and soul of Japan — on Savory Kyoto, published by Kyoto Visitors Guide.

A simple but satisfying way to serve rice is by making onigiri (rice balls). Onigiri are made by simply forming balls of hot rice with your hands (after wetting them and dipping them in salt). It takes some doing, as the rice should be fresh and quite hot, and you must move the rice along, turning and squeezing with both hands, taking care not to burn your hands.

You can either make classic triangle shapes, or barrels — as shown here — to evoke the straw-covered rice barrels that were once distributed in flat-bottomed boats along Kyoto’s canals. We used different varieties of rice (including kurogome (black rice) for the purpose of the photo shoot, but they are most commonly made with plain white rice filled with a variety of delicious ingredients. Recipes for onigiri and other rice dishes can be found on Savory Japan’s Rice recipe page.

The antique raku boat is one of a handful of items originally purchased for our online gallery for Japanese tableware, Mizuya that we just can’t bear to part with.