Onigiri are portions of Japanese steamed rice, pressed by hand into patties, cylinders or other shapes (such as triangles or rectangles); they may be filled with pieces of salted fermented Japanese plum (umeboshi), cooked fish or egg; they may also be wrapped in seaweed, sweet egg omelette, or coated with savoury toppings, such as toasted and salted sesame seeds, fish, etc. They are different from nigiri sushi because the rice used in sushi is seasoned with rice vinegar, salt and sugar, and onigiri are made with plain rice.
May is Asian Heritage month in Canada and Asian-American and Pacific-Islander Heritage month in the US and, since 2019 is a pig year according to the Chinese Zodiac, I am sharing this simple recipe for Ham Onigiri, which were allegedly invented by my grandmother in the early 1920s in the small town of Agujita, in the Mexican state of Coahuila. My grandmother’s innovation was to wrap the Japanese rice shapes with slices of deli ham, since she and my grandfather owned a general store, so they always had ham in their inventory; my mom tells the story that on Sundays, they would often go fishing to the nearby river of Los Alamos, and my grandma, in her forthright style, would pack a can of sardines from their store and a bento (lunch) box with onigiri, made with leftover rice and hastily wrapped with ham slices, more accessible to them than seaweed, and faster than cooking egg omelette.
Ingredients (for six pieces)
2 cups steamed Japanese rice
3 slices deli ham
Umeboshi (salted and fermented Japanese plum, optional)
If using umeboshi, slice into halves and remove pits (photo below, left); reserve. The Japanese steamed rice may be freshly cooked and cooled, or leftover from the day before and reheated slightly. Scoop one third of a cup of rice onto the palm of one hand (photo below, right); some people wear food-grade gloves to prevent the rice from sticking, or simply wet clean hands with a little water:
If using umeboshi, place one half at the centre of the rice ball (photo below, left), then wrap rice around and press with hands to form a tapered cylinder; set aside and repeat with more rice, to form a total of six rice cylinders; set aside. Cut deli ham slices in half; if they are round, trim ends (photo below, right):
Wrap one strip of ham around each rice cylinder; pack for bento (lunch) or a picnic, or serve at home for lunch or as an appetizer:
My mom continued the tradition of making these ham onigiri for our family picnics, and my dad once commented that nobody would have known of ham onigiri in Japan, and it would surely be a very fancy dish there because ham, and cold cuts in general, were rarely consumed in Japan before WWII.
FUN FACT: Canned processed pork such as mini hotdog sausages and Spam™ were introduced in Japan and the Philippines during the American occupation after WWII, and in Korea during and after the Korean War. These processed pork meat products would be part of rations at American military bases, but they became an important source of protein for local families, when fresh meat was scarce and the American troops either sold the surplus cans or distributed them to help hungry people and win their trust. Even after those harsh times had passed, some tenacious fusion dishes that included pork processed meat remained popular, for example the Okinawa style Goya champuru (bitter melon stir-fried mix), and Korean Budae Jjigae (Army Stew, with ramen noodles and everything in the kitchen but the sink). A dish that would somewhat match my grandma’s ham onigiri would be Spam™ Musubi, created by a Japanese American in Hawaii (photo below), but they were also invented after WWII, close to two decades after my mom’s family picnics by Los Alamos river.