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If you watched Pokemon back when it first started airing, you might have seen Ash and company eating “donuts” that suspiciously looked like anything but. These were in fact onigiri, a rice ball wrapped in seaweed and filled with something extra for flavor. They’re about as ubiquitous as the ham sandwich is to the United States, and their history stretches back to before the 11th Century.
Originally, onigiri involved ingredients that traveled well and could extend the shelf life of the product, such as pickled plums (umeboshi), salted salmon, preserved kelp (konbu), or even just plain salt. Samurai, for example, would carry them as necessary fuel for long trips, and they needed food that could last weeks.
However, since the advent of refrigeration, the invention of an onigiri-wrapping machine, the international spread of Japanese culture, among other developments, the range of flavors available has expanded tremendously. Now you can get seasoned eel, tuna with mayonnaise, tempura, and much more. Localized versions are available, catering to the tastes of particular populations. In Hawaii, it’s even common to find onigiri that use Spam, called Spam musubi!
In other words, onigiri are really versatile, and aside from the use of rice and nori the sky’s the limit. For example, I once made onigiri filled with a type of Dutch mashed potatoes mixed with carrots and onions called hutspot. If you like other cuisine, perhaps you can fill onigiri with foie gras, pernil, beef stroganoff, bulgogi, or something else entirely!
So the important question is, what’s your dream onigiri, and will you go out and make it?