In Japan, food fads come and go. They can be as fleeting as the cherry blossom petals that bloom and fall to the ground just days later. The latest is a stuffed, roasted seaweed and rice sandwich called onigirazu. It is actually an old fad enjoying a comeback.
Onigirazu is a creative take on the traditional rice ball (called onigiri or omusubi), a standard snack, lunch, or picnic item. To make onigiri, rice is molded with hands wet with salty water into a compact ball or triangle with small bits of pickled plum (umeboshi), seasoned salmon, or dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi) in the center, like a buried treasure. A belt of roasted seaweed hugs the outside of the rice balls. It takes practice and some skill to make and is the food that reminds most Japanese of their moms.
For onigiri to turn into onigirazu, a square of seafood is layered with warm rice and unconventional fillings like ham, cheese with egg, tuna salad, fried chicken, or some left-over stir-fry. Ketchup and mayonnaise are common condiments used as spreads; greens such as lettuce form demarcations in the layers. You can layer salmon with chive cream cheese and arugula, chicken nuggets with lettuce and ketchup, roast chicken with tomato and baby lettuces.
The seaweed is folded around the layers and wrapped in plastic wrap for five minutes so the warm rice and seaweed have time to adhere. Then the stack is cut in half like a sandwich. Some of the combos may sound like strange bedfellows, but they are quite tasty and are a great way to use up all the bits in the refrigerator.
The origin of onigirazu can be traced to a popular mid-1980s food manga (Japanese comics) called “Cooking Papa.” “The series was about a dad in a family, a ‘salaryman’ who liked to cook,” says Lorie Brau, associate professor of Japanese language and culture at the University of New Mexico, who studies food manga. The recipe recently made a comeback on Cookpad.com, the most popular Japanese recipe-sharing site, which also has an English language version. “All of a sudden it became a popular search word, and now there are hundreds of recipes for onigirazu on the site,” says Brau.
According to Brau, onigirazu, means “not to compress or mold,” which makes this anything-goes rice pillow simple to assemble. Onigirazu should be here to stay.