Elizabeth Andoh on the Language of Food, plus an Illustrated Guide to Making Omusubi and Onigiri

© Copyright, 2017. All rights reserved by Elizabeth Andoh


OMUSUBI/ONIGIRI and The Language of Food
I am often asked what the difference is between omusubi and onigiri , the other word Japanese use to describe hand-pressed rice. Answer: none. Musubu, the origin of the word omusubi , means to “connect” or “bring together,” while nigiru, the root of the word onigiri , means to “compress or squeeze.” Both words are descriptive of the process of making these sandwich-like foods. Neither the generation, nor gender, nor geography of the speaker seems to affect the choice of word.

Since the word nigiri is often used to describe a style of sushi (nuggets of tartly seasoned rice typically covered with a slice of raw fish), I prefer not to use it when speaking of hand-pressed rice. For me, and about half the population of Japan, the word omusubi evokes homemade comfort food; its what mama used to make.

屯食 tonjiki
Tonjiki, written with calligraphy for “gather” and “food,” are thought to be the prototype for modern day onigiri. Several references to tonjiki appear in the 11th century novel Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki Shikubu. In her tale of court romance and intrigue, tonjiki are described as “compact, egg-shaped spheres of cooked rice.” It seems they were prepared in the banquet kitchens not to be served to guests, but rather to feed the household help. The rice was mixed with millet and other less costly grains.

おにぎりonigiri ・nigiru 握る おむすび omusubi・musubu 結ぶ

The Japanese language today has two words for pressed rice bundles: onigiri and omusubi. Both words begin with an honorific “o,” showing that rice, no matter what you call it, is a food to be honored. Each of the words, onigiri and omusubi, derive from verbs that describe the compressing action needed to shape cooked rice into easy-to-carry bundles. Nigiru means “to press together.” Musubu means “to tie together, to bind.”

The Japanese often serve cooked rice at room temperature, packing it into obentō lunch boxes, or making it part of a buffet-like spread when feeding a large crowd. At such times, the cooked rice is likely to be hand pressed or shaped into a number of configurations, making it easier to portion out and hold when eating. Pressed rice is also easy to pack up and transport. The most basic shape is a triangle, though logs called tawara, or “rice sheath,” are also common. The pressed rice bundle is called either ONIGIRI or OMUSUBI.
Plain, white rice stuffed (like a sandwich) with a filling is the norm, but mazé gohan (cooked rice that has been tossed with other cooked foods) is also used in making pressed rice bundles. Usually wrapped with strips of nori (laver), sometimes the rice bundles are grilled and slathered with miso or brushed with soy sauce.

Click here for Elizabeth’s step-by-step, illustrated instructions to prepare omusubi/onigiri.


© Copyright, 2017. All rights reserved by Elizabeth Andoh.