Monday, September 20, 2010

Yaki Onigiri--Japanese Fried Rice Balls

This is another one of those recipes that I grew up eating. My uncle moved here from Japan. I'd love to say that this means I grew up familiar with lots of different Japanese foods, but really it means I learned how to say "I farted" in Japanese at a very young age, tried to eat a sheet of seaweed once and thought it was disgusting, and got really excited whenever yaki onigiri (which I always just called rice balls) were part of dinner when we were visiting them. I don't clearly remember the rest of the dinner; the rice balls were the key component. I'm sure there were Japanese elements to the dishes, but we never ate something that I thought was really weird (at least, until I was old enough to appreciate it).

I decided at some point to make the rice balls I remembered from my childhood myself. I thought it would be hard to figure it out; luckily, I remembered what the Japanese name for them was and a quick Google search was all I needed to find sufficient instructions, and from there I discovered that the method itself is extremely simple. I wouldn't say I've mastered the technique--I mean, I've made them once. They burnt a little bit, and when I told my uncle he told me that I should make them on the grill next time (well, I guess that'll have to wait until next year--it looks like grilling season is just about over). They were, though, the thing I was looking for.

Yaki onigiri are densely-packed balls (or triangles, or whatever shape you feel like) of sushi rice, grilled or pan-fried with a bit of oil, brushed with soy sauce. That's it. They're such a simple concept, but the flavors involved blend together, the outside forms a nice crunchy shell and the inside somehow becomes almost creamy in the cooking process. Granted, I've never just eaten plain onigiri, but I don't usually think of rice as creamy (not even the rice wrapped around the sushi I get, which I imagine is what I'm using here) so it's an interesting juxtaposition against what you expect. Apparently it is fairly common to get (or make) these stuffed, as well, which would add another layer of complexity that I'm not quite ready for (and don't really feel is necessary).

RECIPE: Yaki Onigiri

-Sushi rice, prepared according to instructions on package (note that sushi rice is NOT cooked by the "normal" rice ratio of 1 cup rice to 2 cups water; my bag had me use 2 cups rice to 2 1/2 cups water), as much as you want to make
-Cooking oil (I used extra virgin olive oil because it's what I have; a vegetable or peanut oil would probably be more authentic)
-Soy sauce or tamari

Other Requirements:
-a bowl of cold water
-a basting brush of some sort
-a grill or frying pan
-onigiri molds or cookie cutters (totally optional)

1. Prepare sushi rice and roll into balls. (Make sure your hands are dipped in cold water to prevent the rice from sticking to them.)
2. Put in a hot, oiled frying pan or grill for a few minutes until lightly browned on one side.
3. Flip. Brush with soy sauce. Allow to lightly brown on this side, too.
4. Flip. Brush with soy sauce. Cook for about 1 minute.
5. Flip. Cook for about 1 minute.
6. Remove from pan.

Step 1: Sushi rice, just finished cooking, fluffed with a fork.

Also Step 1: The rice was too hot to touch at first, so I packed it into little heart-shaped cookie cutters with a fork. It took SO much time that it probably wasn't worth doing, but if I do it again, I'll pack it denser next time.

Step 2: in the pan. This is what the rest of mine looked like. Apparently "round" isn't the traditional shape, but it's what I'm used to and it's tasty, so I can deal.

Step either 3 or 4: Lightly browned and brushed with soy sauce. This side still has to cook for a tiny bit more.

Post-Step 6: The "Eat" step. They're a tiny bit darker than they should be, but they were still super tasty. I love crunchy rice.

Wow! Okay, that was super simple. If you're cooking a lot of them at once, the brush-then-flip thing can get sort of tricky and you'll have to move quickly, but other than that this is easy. Note that it's best to roll the rice into balls as soon as you can after it's done cooking. The site I found these instructions on used cookie cutters as molds, which I found worked really well right when the rice finished--I could use a fork to pack the cookie cutters without burning myself. If you do this, make sure both the fork and the cookie cutter have been rinsed in cold water first. When it comes to the soy sauce, I would recommend not drenching the rice in soy sauce unless you and everyone else you're cooking for really really likes soy sauce. It's a lot easier to just brush a little bit on and leave the bottle on the table for people who want more than it is to make a whole new batch if someone thinks they're too salty.

Yaki onigiri can be made as large or small as you like, in whatever shape, with whatever filling and whatever amount of soy sauce. They're actually quite versatile when you consider that it's just rice! They work well as either a side dish or an appetizer, or even a meal if you're lazy and don't care about getting proper nutrition. They're also finger food! Eat them with your hands. It's important.

I served these with my peanut-sauce panko pork chops and they were delicious together. I bet pretty much any recipe that involves some sort of Asian fusion element would do well with these as a side or appetizer. I also ate them cold for breakfast the next morning, which was just as wonderful.

School's already keeping me super busy (well, and for some reason I've had busy weekends). I'm trying to cook and update but it's hard to find the time! I hope you guys forgive me. I think it'll be easier once I settle into a schedule (and start reading some of my new cookbooks!). Right now, I'm trying to enjoy the last few days of summer, but also wishing the weather would make up its mind! It's at that point where it's getting cold at night so when I leave in the morning I want long pants and long sleeves and a sweatshirt but I'm dying by the time I get out of my first class. How is everyone else enjoying their last moments of summer?