The Globus Washitsu, an authentically-recreated Japanese tea house just north of Union Square, was the perfect setting for Elizabeth Andoh, a leading English-language authority on Japanese cookery and culinary culture, to share her deep knowledge on how Japan’s beloved, flavored rice bundles, known alternatively as onigiri or omusubi, earned their place as one of Japan’s iconic and ubiquitous foods.
Andoh’s illustrated lecture showed off the many varieties of the rice bundles—some excruciatingly cute—or, as the Japanese would say, kawaii —and included a visual master class in the techniques for making them. She explained that the words onigiri and omusubi originate from verbs that describe the physical action that shapes the rice. The words are traceable to the 15th century, but Andoh believes these hand-shaped rice balls are much older. Buttressing her claim for their antiquity was a gorgeous 12th century woodcut that seems to depict the dish, as well as 6th century references to tonjiki, a portable rice ball.
Of course, a name never tells the entire story when it comes to food history. Andoh traced the genesis of omusubi and onigiri to Japan’s formal banqueting tradition. While the beautiful shapes and luscious flavors of onigiri might seem appropriate for elegant banquets, the rice balls were never part of the initial spread. Instead, onigiri were used to feed servants after the banquet, as a way of using whatever tidbits were left over. In its earliest version, bits of meat, seafood, and other morsels could be added to inexpensive grains like millet and the dregs of leftover rice, the luxurious grain historically enjoyed by Japanese elites. Even now, although rice is a staple enjoyed by all Japanese, economical households make onigiri expressly for the purpose of using up leftovers.
Onigiri were designed to be eaten with the hands, not chopsticks, emphasizing their informality and humility. And although many onigiri are wrapped in nori for convenient hand-holding, the nori itself can add an aesthetic dimension: the artistic possibilities of onigiri are limited only by the maker’s imagination, time, and skills. Japanese mothers lavish attention creating adorable onigiri for their children’s bento boxes, giving the onigiri the appearance of anything from a kitten to a soccer ball, the latter using convenient die-cut sheets of nori to mimic the ball’s distinctive pattern.
While considered comfort food and prized when homemade, onigiri can be found for sale in nearly every konbini (convenience store) across Japan. Andoh cited statistics that in 2015, 1.6 billion onigiri were sold in 7-Eleven konbini alone; 7-Eleven makes up 67% of the market share of konbini, and with Japan’s population of 120 million, 7-Eleven sold on average more than 12 onigiri to each resident of Japan. Andoh herself avoids these mass-market onigiri, but could recommend the Odamusubi chain of eateries located in some of Japan’s train stations. Staffed by septuagenarian ladies who make onigiri by hand, the old-fashioned way, Andoh assured us that one can taste the difference.
The most affecting portion of Andoh’s lecture was her description of the chaos that followed the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan, and the way in which one small Muslim community, working with a Buddhist temple, leapt into action as first responders, traversing the devastation to deliver comforting onigiri to hungry victims of the disaster. Andoh’s e-book, Kibō, which translates to “brimming with hope,” is dedicated to detailing the cuisine of this region; proceeds from the sale go toward rebuilding the devastated community.
Before the lecture guests toured the serene Globus Washitsu, with its gurgling water fountain, shoji screens, stone steps, tatami mats, and authentic kitchen and Japanese bathroom. Steve Globus, the Nipponophile behind the washitsu, had decorated the reception area with an exquisite sampling from his collection of hanten, traditional men’s winter jackets, all in harmonious shades of soft blues. Guests feasted on a sampling of onigiri prepared by the Brooklyn Ball Factory, flavored with bonito, salmon, or ume, a type of plum. Underscoring Andoh’s point that onigiri were considered servants’ food, the Brooklyn Ball Factory initially asked how many staff would need to be served after the CHNY event, and whether CHNY would be serving sushi to its guests. When it was told that the onigiri were for the guests, there was momentary surprise: the food’s casual associations somehow seemed inappropriate to this Japanese caterer anticipating honored guests. Happily, the CHNY audience disagreed, enjoying this popular treat with green tea and sake from the East Village’s Sakaya.