Some people call them OMUSUBI, others call them ONIGIRI, the Japanese language today has two words for pressed rice bundles. Both 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.”
おにぎりonigiri ・ nigiru 握る
おむすび omusubi ・ musubu 結ぶ
Culinary historians believe the prototype for modern-day omusubi was tonjiki, written with calligraphy for “gather” and “food.” Several references to tonjiki appear in the 11th century novel Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki Shikubu. In her story 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 beans, millet and other less costly grains. This ancient food is still the single most popular item at today’s convenience stores.
Most pressed rice bundles are triangular, though many are ball, log or patty-shaped; some are even made to look like pandas or penguins. Often the rice will be cooked with other grains, or tossed with other ingredients before being shaped. Fillings vary, and so do wrappers. The variety is nearly infinite.
Japan’s rice bundles can be found tucked into lunch boxes as well as arranged on plates or platters. And in times of crisis, omusubi and onigiri provide not just sustenance but a sense of nostalgic comfort, too.
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A Taste of Culture
Culinary Arts Program
Setagaya-ku, Tokyo 158-0095, Japan