Onigiri are little sculptures that exemplify art meeting food. They are like little gifts with surprise fillings, wrapped in a rice package and in this version, adorned with a rich and sweet tahini sauce called goma.
The ingredients are a perfect mixture of textures and flavors from the sticky rice to the rich tahini-based topping. This particular recipe, from asianfoodgrocer.com, calls for a silky spinach center.
Onigiri are portable, make a quick meal and are commonly sold in convenience stores around Japan. In the 11th century, they were eaten at picnics according to the diary of the famous novelist, poet and lady-in-waiting, Murasaki Shikibu, famous for her classic book “The Tale of Genji.” On the battlefront, samurai stored rice balls in thick, dried bamboo stalks and before chopsticks became widely used in the 700s ACE, rice rolled into little balls was the main way it was eaten according to Wikipedia.
The tiny sesame seed, or “goma” in Japanese, plays a big role in this recipe from the sauce made of ground sesame seeds and toasted sesame oil, to the sprinkles of black sesame seeds on the top. Traveling one time in Korea, we had a nice morning surprise at a small hotel in Buyeo when it turned out to have a toasted sesame oil factory below our room. It was so pleasant waking up to the warm, fragrant smells of what has to be, one of most remarkable flavors and scents of all cuisines worldwide.
I added a bare-bones recipe for sunomono, cucumber salad, because it goes so well with the onigiri. You will need to speak to someone more knowledgeable than I to get a better recipe and find out what that special touch is.
1 cup Japanese short grain white rice
1 cup water
Kosher salt for later
Or, two cups cooked rice
1 bunch spinach, washed, dried and stems cut off
Goma or sesame sauce:
2 tablespoons tahini
1 tablespoon sugar (plus a dash or two)
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons ginger, crushed
1/2 clove garlic, pressed
1/4 teaspoon chili sauce
Salt (to taste)
Black sesame seeds
Put 1 cup rice in a medium bowl and add enough water to cover it with an inch of water. Stir the rice and loosen the powdery rice starch. Tilt the bowl and drain the rice. Cover with water and drain again until the water is no longer cloudy. Add the rice and 1 cup water to a saucepan that has a tight-fitting lid. Bring to a boil uncovered, then cover, reduce the heat to low and cook until the rice is absorbed in about 20 minutes. Set aside and keep warm while preparing the spinach and Goma sauce.
While the rice is cooking, combine ingredients for goma sauce in a small dish. Mix until creamy. Taste and adjust seasonings until perfect for your taste buds.
Wash, dry and trim off the stems of the spinach. Bring a pot with about 1 inch of water to a boil. Add the spinach and cook until it is silky. Drain.
When spinach is cooled, chop and combine with enough Goma sauce to make a delicious filling but not enough to overwhelm the spinach. Save the rest for topping the onigiri.
Set up an area where you are going to construct the onigiri. Use an 8-inch square of plastic wrap or a plastic bag. Lightly flatten out about a fourth of a cup of rice onto the plastic wrap. Sprinkle the rice with some kosher salt, put about 1/6 of the filling on top of the rice and cover with a light layer of rice. Bring the edges of the plastic wrap together and press between the hands to form a triangle with the filling neatly enclosed inside.
Put a dab of goma sauce in the center of the triangle and sprinkle with black sesame seeds to serve. Makes about six.
Sunomono – Cucumber Salad
3 Japanese or 4 Persian cucumbers
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
Slice cucumbers as thin as you can and put them in a bowl. Stir in salt, and let it sit for 5 minutes. Squeeze water out from cucumbers. In a small bowl, mix rice vinegar, sugar, and soy sauce together until sugar dissolves. Add vinegar mixture and sesame seeds to prepared cucumbers and mix well.