Beyond the Pocky: Let them eat Mochi!
Time to get our hands sticky! The first step to eating Japanese is to embrace its staple food, the versatile grain called rice.
Rice is to the East what wheat is to the West. It has a place in every part of the Japanese meal. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert; without rice, it's just not complete. The Japanese use rice in every conceivable way, from fermenting it to rolling it in seaweed to pounding it into a sticky pulp. In an Asian supermarket, many of the products you will see are based on this staple of the Japanese diet.
The easiest way to prepare rice is to steam it straight. To do this, most people buy a rice cooker, which is much easier to use than a regular pot. Sometimes pickled vegetables are added to rice, but butter is not. Have you ever seen a cow on the mystic peaks of Japan? I didn't think so. Butter on rice is a Western thing, all the way.
Steaming is the boring everyman's solution to making a meal out of rice, but there are more creative things to do with it. For example, there are those cute little balls called omusubi, or onigiri. In anime, the onigiri is a central character. Drinking games rely on its appearance. The onigiri is nothing more than sushi rice rolled up in a ball, with some seaweed serving as a nice handle. In supermarkets, premade onigiri awaits the microwave, but for the adventurous, all the ingredients are there to make your own. I decided that I couldn't call myself a helpless fan if I didn't try at least once to make a rice ball, so I grabbed myself some sushi rice, vinegar, and a pack of seaweed. That's all it takes.
I have a rice cooker, so I put in one and a half cups of rice to one cup of water, and put the thing on to cook. For those of you that don't cook often, remember that rice blows up almost four times as big when it is done cooking, so be careful. After twenty minutes of steaming, I pulled out the recipe I had found and went to work.
If anyone had told me before I started that making a ball of rice was hard, I would have laughed. Now that I've tried it, I have much more appreciation for those little triangle treats than I once did. The first problem I had was figuring out how to handle the rice. After spreading it on a platter I rolled a nice ball together and picked it up to shape, but the more I tried to get it to stick to itself, the more it stuck to me. My hands became rice popcicles, and there was nothing resembling an onigiri anywhere.
Then I remembered a little bit of Japanese trivia. When sushi chefs put rice on the seaweed, they dip their hands in ice cold water first. I decided to try that, and, eureka! My problem was solved! I had found the first secret to onigiri making. When handling rice, make sure that your hands are freezing cold and dripping wet so that the rice will not stick to you.
The rice was no longer sticking to me, but it still wasn't sticking to itself either. I had put too little water in, and the rice was too dry. That sort of thing couldn't be easily fixed, so I had to work around it and make a note for next time that just enough water isn't enough.
Even though the rice was not behaving, I was still managing to give it some shape. My first riceball looked more like a rice square, but after wrapping it in seaweed I was quite proud of myself. Each riceball after that took on a progressively more triangular shape. When I arrived at the last pile of rice, I decided to try something new.
Although you wouldn't be able to tell by watching anime, onigiri are usually filled with pickled fishes or garnishes. The rice serves as a package for the filling, and if you buy supermarket onigiri, you will usually get the version that is full of something and wrapped completely in seaweed, instead of having just a single strip on the bottom. I didn't have pickled plums or bonito flakes lying around, so I put some leftover lo mein in the microwave, chopped it up, and used that as a filling. It tasted exquisite, even though pieces of beef were poking out of the sides and the seaweed could barely keep the rice together. So remember, even for something as traditional as the riceball, it doesn't hurt to improvise.
I had made myself a total of four onigiri, each a meal in itself, and I had no one to share them with, so I ate one immediately and put the rest in the fridge. The next day, I brought one to school to see if it would make a good leftover lunch, which it most certainly did. The onigiri lasted around two days before becoming somewhat inedible. For those of you who like the shock factor of exotic foods, an onigiri is a real conversation starter at the school cafeteria. Take my word for it.
Mochi is just as visible in anime as onigiri, and it is famous for the way that it is made. Steaming piles of rice are put into a tub, and people mash them with mallets until they get a sweet paste out of it. Nowadays, the mochi process is more mechanized and available in all its wonderful incarnations to those who don't feel like hammering at rice for the whole day. There are three things going for mochi. The first is its texture. Mochi is sticky and flexible. You can do pretty much anything with it. One of the favorite pastimes in Japan is filling mochi with fillings. Red bean is quite common, as so is anise. Small beads of mochi the size of a penny and filled with peanut butter can be bought in the frozen foods aisle and added to soup as a tasty addition.
The second cool thing about this ingredient is that it's very sweet and it goes very well with ice cream. Anyone who likes mochi should try mochi ice cream. It is usually sold in boxes, with little mochi balls surrounding the ice cream inside. The mochi makes the treat handheld while the ice cream inside stays soft. For those who want to play it safe, there are flavors like vanilla and coffee. For people who want the full Japanese experience, I suggest red bean or melon.
The third thing is that it can take the color and flavor of almost anything. Mochi comes in a veritable rainbow of colors, and by those colors you can sometimes tell what's inside. The natural color for mochi is a pale white. If you see balls in that color there could be anything inside, but there's a good chance that it will have red bean. If the mochi is red, then the odds jump to ninety percent. Green mochi means veggie paste. Anise is your best bet, but red bean isn't impossible. Pink might have a rose taste or red bean, and orange could be red bean or something fruity, and so on. In case it hasn't occurred to you yet, red bean paste is a favorite filling for mochi, like cream is to cannoli.
Rice can be pounded even more to make tasty and cheap gummy candies, and it can be fermented to make sake. Mixed with a disproportionate amount of water and sprinkled with pork, you can have rice soup, which is perfect for cold winter nights in drafty shoji screened houses. Food stores sell rice by the ton, so for those who want to try out all of the foods above, a five pound bag will be very easy to come by.
So next time when you're looking for a snack, put down that cake and grab a mochi instead!