As soon as I tried onigiri for the first time, I knew I had to eventually post something about it on Anatomy of a Sandwich. I had thought that, like many other posts I’ve done, I’d have to spend most of my time justifying how onigiri fit into a sandwich blog. But then I opened up a book by Shizuo Tsuji called Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art. This book is widely considered to be the first translation of Japanese cuisine into Western understanding, not to mention the foremost encyclopedia on traditional Japanese foods. So needless to say, I was thrilled to find this sentence leading the description of onigiri: “Japan’s traditional sandwich equivalent.”
This means, fortunately, that instead of validating onigiri’s inclusion here, I get to talk about the fun stuff!!!
Onigiri, also called omusubi, are delicious balls of rice stuffed with vegetable, meat, or seafood fillings, then wrapped in seaweed (called nori). Though the word “onigiri” has the same root as “nigiri”, a form of sushi, rice balls actually fall into a different category of Japanese cuisine. The relation here has to do with the etymology of “nigiri”, which means “clenched” or “gripped”. If you’ve ever seen a sushi chef make nigiri, then you know what I’m talking about. Onigiri are also clenched, as the rice must be pressed hard enough to stick together, without squishing the rice grains, which makes them harden. In fact, it is said that, since cooking was traditionally done by women, the clenching of onigiri was a sign of a mother’s love gripping the rice together. Onigiri are usually triangular in shape, but can also be tubular or round.
On the other hand, there is a very big difference between nigiri and onigiri: the rice. While sushi rice is made with vinegar and sugar, onigiri rice is simply steamed. Furthermore, when making nigiri, you simply wet your hands so the rice sticks together, but not to your hands. With onigiri, wetting your hands is followed by salting your hands, so that as you press the ball together, you are also seasoning it. The reason behind this actually has to do with the original reason each dish was created. Sushi was created as a way to preserve fish: the fish was put between layers of this vinegared rice in order to preserve the fish. Alternatively, onigiri is salted because it originated as a method to preserve rice, not the filling inside. To this end, traditional fillings for onigiri are usually preserved in and of themselves, like umeboshi (pickled plum), salted salmon, and tarako (salted cod roe). Onigiri is also on the larger side, meant to be handheld, you know, like a sandwich!!! Furthermore, onigiri is often thought to be Japan’s oldest food, possibly originating before the widespread use of chopsticks, since it takes rice, a difficult food to eat with your hands, and makes it more accessible. Archaeologists have even found a lump of carbonized rice from around 300 BC that showed evidence of being held by human hands!
Today, onigiri holds a very similar place in Japanese cuisine as sandwiches do in Western cuisine. Found everywhere from onigiri shops to gas stations and convenience stores, modern technology has had a large part in making onigiri as widespread as it is. While traditionally, the emotional associations and precision needed to make onigiri made it impossible to mass produce, these days we’ve figured out how to have machines grip the rice properly, stuff the ball with filling, and package the ball with nori in a way that prevents the seaweed from going soggy. It is a truly portable meal that is eaten in the same context as sandwiches, and is considered one of the best platforms for highlighting local flavors and trends. They are also used to explore other cuisines, as now you can find the traditionally English filling of tuna mayo, or even Italian-style, with tomato sauce and cheese. In LA, we have two great onigiri spots: Sunny Blue (in Santa Monica, with a new location in Culver City) and Kawaba Rice Ball in Hollywood. Both offer a great combination of traditional and modern fillings, as you can see in the photos. And both are unbelievably delicious and reasonably priced, so are great for a snack or a full meal, which means if you pass one of these places, you have no excuse not to go!
Well, it’s been quite a hiatus, but I’m back, and starting up again with one of my favorite sandwiches…the lobster roll.
Let’s begin with a bit of lobster history! There are actually quite a few species of lobster, but culinarily speaking, there are two that really matter. Lobsters are actually found all over the world, but the two we eat most are from each side of the Atlantic Ocean: the American lobster, and the European lobster. In fact, lobsters have been a part of the human diet as far back as the Greeks and Romans! For our purposes, let’s stick with the lobster we all know and love, from the westside of the Atlantic.
When the Americas began to be populated, lobsters were overwhelmingly plentiful, and not considered a delicacy. As it became a part of our diet, it was actually seen as the opposite: only the poor, prisoners, and indentured servants ate lobster…and they weren’t happy about it! But by the mid 1800s, eaters in Boston and New York had begun to pick up on the deliciousness, and technology advanced to a point where lobsters could be fished more easily for mass consumption.
The problem is, lobsters inherently lend themselves to being a luxury. They live alone, on the sea bed, in rocky outcrops, and reproduce very slowly….it can take up to two years to produce fertilized eggs, and then another six to eight years for the lobsters to become large enough to legally fish. Furthermore, lobsters are caught in traps, not with huge nets, and have been known to engage in cannibalism when in captivity. So in terms of price, female lobsters are the way to go…not only are they generally bigger, but the eggs, or coral, can also be used in sauces, and many gourmands believe that they taste better anyway.
In America, Maine is known for their lobster, and lobster is associated more than anything else with Maine. And it’s true, a lot of lobster comes from Maine. But actually, there’s a whole lot more in Canada, Maine just has a better PR company.
But let’s move on to lobster rolls. Lobster rolls come in two forms: hot and cold. The original lobster roll, unsurprisingly, comes from Maine, and is cold. The Maine version usually has a bit of mayo and some seasoning tossed with the lobster meat. Elsewhere in New England, the meat is usually mixed with mayo, celery, and a bit of seasoning…it’s actually a bit similar to a tuna salad, just overwhelmingly better (because it’s lobster). The hot lobster roll is credited to Harry Perry of Milford, CT, and is a simpler affair: hot chunks of lobster meat, drenched in drawn butter. But where the hot and cold join in the Venn diagram of lobster rolls is the bread: a toasted hot dog bun (or similar shape) cut down from the top instead of horizontally. I think the wonderfulness that is the lobster roll is best summed up by Susan Russo in her book The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches: “it’s ironic that lobster, one of the world’s most luxurious foods, is also the featured ingredient in this, one of New England’s least pretentious sandwiches.”
I think anyone who has had a lobster roll in New England can agree. The photos above are from Captain Scott’s Lobster Dock in New London, CT, where I went to college. The afternoons I spent there, eating lobster rolls (always hot of course…I may be a sucker for mayo, but there’s nothing better than hot lobster and drawn butter), are recalled with casual vibes and feelings of relaxation, not of white tablecloths and fine wines. It was about sitting outside at wooden picnic benches with friends and a cold beer, watching the boats come in and out of the harbor, chowing down on delicious food.