In this and a few other posts (click here for Part 1), I would like to share some of my mom’s stories and recipes from her childhood in Agujita, a small mining town in the Mexican state of Coahuila; when I myself was a child, I heard these and many other anecdotes, sitting with my mom in her kitchen, which filled my imagination with picturesque scenes of Mexico (and other countries) and inspired me to always strive to move forward, and never stop learning. Thank you, mom!
At the top of this post, Esthercita (Little Esther, my mom’s nickname) with her baby brother José Angel (Agujita, Coahuila, circa 1931).
My grandparents owned a small store in town, and after a while, they upgraded and opened “La Japonesa” (“The Japanese”), which was a real general store; at some point they had a young man named Goyo, who would make deliveries around town on a cart with one horse for a wage, and my mom was allowed to ride next to him. One day, while Goyo was delivering an order, the horse got startled, and ran away at full speed with Esthercita on the cart! The horse kept running, heading towards the train tracks, but since he was very experienced, he knew better and stopped before crossing. That passage ended well, but when the old horse got to retire a couple of years later, my grandafther retired the cart as well, and got a brand new 1934 Chevrolet pick-up truck (“la troca” in Agujita style Spanglish). It was navy blue, had a crank, and apparently broke down all the time. Nevertheless, it allowed the family to go on picnics, sometimes to the nearby Los Alamos river. My grandparents worked very hard six days a week, so my grandma did not have time to prepare a fancy basket; to ameliorate the process, she would grab a can of sardines from their store and hastily pack a bento (lunch, in Japanese) box with oniguiri, made with leftover rice and wrapped with whatever was available at the store, such as ham slices.
Oniguiri 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 niguiri sushi because the rice used in sushi is seasoned with rice vinegar, salt and sugar, and oniguiri are made with plain rice.
So it appears like Ham Oniguiri were invented by my grandmother, her innovation being to wrap the Japanese rice shapes with slices of deli ham, more accessible to her than seaweed, and faster than cooking egg omelette. My mom continued the tradition of making these ham oniguiri for our family picnics, and my dad once commented that nobody would have known of ham oniguiri in Japan back then, and it would surely be a very fancy dish there because ham, and cold cuts in general, were rarely consumed in Japan before WWII.