Fast food is not something you’d typically associate with Japan, even though we’ve soundly debunked the idea that Japanese food is inherently healthy in the past. But did you know that Japan created what is probably the oldest fast food in the world? Yep, and it is still popular to this day, sitting on the shelves of every conbini store up and down the land. You perhaps never thought of it as fast food before. Enter the humble onigiri.
Onigiri (おにぎり/お握り), often translated as ‘rice ball’, is a shorthand for ‘nigirimeshi’ (握り飯), which literally means ‘grab food’. And that is the whole point of the onigiri, really: that it can be picked up by hand and carried around in the hand without the need for a bowl.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves: what is an onigiri exactly? If you’re thinking its a load of sticky rice rolled into a ball, you’re only one third of the way there: a proper onigiri also has a filling in the centre and is wrapped, either completely or in part, in ‘nori’ (海苔), which is dried seaweed.
Oh, and onigiri are rarely ball-shaped: they’re usually triangular. But hey, who’s gonna get pedantic over fast food, eh?
The beauty of the onigiri is that it really is a handheld meal, just as good fast food should be. The rice is lightly salted to keep the rice sticking together as well as preserving the rice, and because the center filling is aslo surrounded by rice it too is preserved – which is just as well as some of the fillings can be fresh and spoil quickly, like fish.
Folks into Japan cottoned on to the brilliance of the onigiri so early in their history that there’s no real answer as to when they may have originated. All we know is that they’ve been around for as long as Murasaki Shikibu (author of ‘The Tale of Genji’, the world’s oldest novel), as she wrote in her 11th-century diary of people of people eating onigiri. Presumably this little nugget of information was hidden amongst other juicy diary secrets like her school crush and complaining that her mum was dressing her in kimonos that were so 10th-century.
But even these early recordings only point out that rolling rice up into onigiri was already in vogue back them: the fact of the matter is that onigiri might be even older than chopsticks, as it’s a lot easier to wrap up rice than it would’ve been to carve up rudimentary chopsticks back in those days.
Let’s fast forward to the modern era. It’s the 1980s, and the food landing on shelves are going through mass production in supermarkets. Making onigiri on a production line was at first thought to be impossible, for two reasons: first, it was believed that machinery couldn’t replicate the complicated technique of rolling rice. This problem was overcome fairly quickly, but the next one was a real headscratcher: the nori. The thing is, when a nori is wrapped around a rice ball, it is hard and crunchy, like a very thin wafer. But if it is left there for too long, the seaweed goes soggy and sticky. How could the mass-produced onigiri be put together and shipped out to stores fast enough before that happened?
The solution was fairly ingenious, and can be seen on on any onigiri you can pickup at any conbini today. At first, it may look as if the nori and rice ball are wrapped together in the same plastic wrapping. And they are. But if you look closer, you’ll see that the plastic has been intricately folded in such a way that it separates the nori and the rice. With a simple pull from the edges the plastic wrapping comes away but the nori stays put, making contact with the rice for the first time and wrapping around it as if it had just been freshly made. Genius.
These days onigiri come in an all manner of flavours. Umeboshi (dried plum) and ‘shake’ (salmon) are cold hard classics that have been filling onigiri for as long as there have been onigiri at all, but there are an endless variety of interesting and experimental onigiri flavours out there. Tuna-mayo is one of the more popular ones out there, but you can also get flavoured rice, big slabs of sausage, grilled meat…basically, if you can wrap rice around it, it’s an onigiri.
Onigiri is the fast food OG, and is probably still the finest example of it to this day. Long may it last!