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  • Juju Kurihara

History of Onigiri

One of the best snack you can get in Japan is onigiri (おにぎり/rice ball). There are konbini(コンビニ) every corner and you an pick one or two from a hundred (it´s really a lot! ) of choice of stuffing. Good thing about this snack is much healthier than other things such as crisps, doughnuts, chocolate bars or a slice of pizza.

For Japanese people, onigiri is like hotdogs for New Yorkers or sandwiches for English people. The function is exactly the same, which you can munch it without interrupting what you are doing.

Onigiri are made for many occasions. School excursion, sports day, picnic, hanami (picnic under the cherry blossoms), at the beach or a hiking. It´s easy to carry since the rice and the side dish are all in one. Also it gives you enough energy to carry on the rest of the day. Whoever invented this, he or she was genius.

This is the very first onigiri excavated in Japan and is thought to be from about 2,000 years ago. It´s completely carbonised but the archaeologists have found the finger marks, which came from by squeezing the rice. Japanese people have been eating rice for a long time.

Onigiri became onigiri as we eat now during Heian period (794-1185/1192) and it was called tonjiki (頓食). It´s possible that the English translation, rice ball comes from this tonjiki because it had a round egg shape.

Tonjiki was served to shimozukae (下仕え) who worked at the court to do small jobs.

In the middle of Edo period, to be more exact, during Genroku period (元禄時代, 1688-1704), processed seaweed as we know now became accessible to common people and people began to wrap the rice ball with nori (海苔/ seaweed). It was the time when the cling wrap wasn´t invented at all, so wrapping onigiri with a sheet of seaweed must´ve been a revolution. Thanks to nori, we can eat onigiri without having the sticky hands.

In Edo era, onigiri was considered as a carrying food. If you look at Hiroshige Ando´s wood block print, the famous "Tokaido Gojusan tsugi (東海道五十三次/ 53 Stations of Tokaido)", you can see the travellers eating onigiri happily.

By the way, onigiri is also called omusubi (おむすび) or nigirimeshi (握り飯) depending on the regions. Different way of calling it can be a dialect. In fact, onigiri is the most common name for rice balls in Japan but around Kanto-Tokaido area, omusubi is more common, although in Tokyo and Kanagawa prefecture, people say onigiri. However, the different names also come from the shape.

Omusubi is squeezed in a mountain shape (triangle) as a symbol of the God in order to receive the power of the God. In this theory, only the one in the triangle shape is omusubi. However, the word onigiri comes from nigirimeshi. Nigiru (握る) means squeeze. This means onigiri can be in any shape as long as the rice is squeezed in a shape. -by Onigiri Association

Onigiri has been and is a Japanese soul food and recently it´s becoming more common in many Western countries. If not, ask your Japanese neighbours or classmates. I´m sure they will be happy to make you some. Not only that but that will be a good excuse to make more Japanese friends. Enjoy your onigiri!


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