Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Adventures with Rice Balls

There is a pecking order among ex pats in any country, largely based on who has lived abroad the longest, who speaks the language, who knows the best bars and who boasts the most connections. Among the Americans and Europeans living in Japan, this pecking order is particularly pronounced. Japanese culture is just a little more exotic than most, making assimilation a more convoluted process than in Germany or Australia, but at the same time Japan is wealthy enough to attract hordes of businessmen, exchange students and punks on a lark, otherwise known as English teachers.

As with any pecking order, long-term residents of Japan know how to identify those less experienced than themselves. Watching a foreigner eat is a sure fire way to tell how long they have lived in Japan, but you have to know what to look for. Though Japanese people never cease to be amazed by Westerners who demonstrate proficiency with their chopsticks, the ubiquity of take-out Chinese joints scattered throughout the great American sprawl means that some folks who have never been west of California can wield their wooden cutlery with the precision of a sushi chef. Likewise, the popularity of traditional Japanese cuisine is on the rise, at least in the types of towns where masters degrees outnumber deer tags, so even delicacies like raw octopus and bean curd soup are no longer guaranteed to produce gasps or giggles from those fresh off the plane.

No, these days it isn’t enough to shock a newcomer to Japan by sneaking extra wasabi into their soba, placing especially wriggly sea creatures on their plate or even counting the number of tries they take to pick up a cherry tomato with chopsticks. The way to distinguish the tourist from the ex pat is by watching how they deal with common, unexciting Japanese foods, such as the ever present rice ball, or onigiri.

Onigiri are a fixture of lunch boxes, picnics and convenience store shelves across Japan. The most basic kind of onigiri is simply plain sticky rice packed into a ball and wrapped with a strip of dried seaweed, but most have a filling of some sort hidden inside. For the uninitiated, choosing an onigiri is a bit like playing the lottery. Will that first bite reveal pink salmon flakes or brown shavings of dried bonito; the face twisting sourness of a pickled plum or salty pop of tiny yellow crab eggs?

The dilemma is especially acute at convenience stores, where there are at least ten different kinds of onigiri from which to choose. The wrappings are color coded, offering at least a hint of what lies within. However, if one cannot read Japanese, the choices are still bewildering. Does bright red mean slimy salmon eggs or, worse, the dreaded pickled squid intestines? What kind of animal or vegetable product does light blue represent? ∗

There are very clear stages of adjustment for foreigners when it comes to choosing a rice ball. At the very bottom of the pecking order is the reckless first-timer, bedazzled by the very fact of finding himself in Japan, and who, in the spirit of adventure, will pick the onigiri with the brightest wrapper in the spirit of adventure. This fellow almost always happens upon the squid intestine.

The second time around, having once encountered disaster at the heart of his evening snack, the neophyte approaches the rice ball wrap with suspicion and intrigue. In the same way that suburban dogs are aware that a little white flag at the edge of the yard equals a painful shock to the neck, he knows that the color bright red must be avoided at all costs. Still unable to decipher Japanese ideograms, he chooses the calmer, less threatening light blue and is rewarded with the familiar taste of tuna and mayonnaise. An astute observer will soon realize that any foreigner who, without hesitation, chooses the tuna and mayo rice ball has probably been in the country for between one week and six months.

There comes a time however, when a steady diet of light blue onigiris becomes tiresome. Who hasn’t gotten sick of tuna sandwiches at some point in elementary school? And so, in a matter of months, our brave ex patriate finds himself standing in front of the onigiri shelf at the local 7-11, knowing only that red is bad and blue is bland.

This third stage of cultural adjustment is a gradual process with moments of great relief countered by repeated disappointments and occasional outright failure. Trying to memorize which color wrapper goes with which filling is a lot like an extended game of concentration, only with rice balls one can never be sure that the rules haven’t changed overnight. New flavors are introduced, reliable favorites go out of stock and even after a master of the 7-11 can find himself reduced to playing eenie-meenie-miney-moe at Seicomart or Lawsons.

Though the trial of choosing the perfect rice ball can reduce the confidence of strong men to brittle little shells, an even more difficult task awaits in the convenience store parking lot. Hoping for the best but expecting the worst, our hungry hero begins to unwrap his enigmatic little ball. Giving the plastic a firm tear, the onigiri activates its primitive yet highly effective defense mechanism and simply falls apart, like a lizard sacrificing its tail to a predator. The uninitiated is left with a handful of rice clumps, bits of seaweed and, in all likelihood, dribbly strands of squid intestine.

The problem, of course, its that the rice ball is already wrapped in a layer of dried seaweed, which holds the whole contraption together. Fresh homemade onigiris tend to maintain their form even without the wrapping, but their older streetwise convenience store cousins often dry out under the glare of fluorescent lighting, ready to make a run for it if a clumsy foreigner opens the tiniest crack in their salty green cage. Removing the outer plastic wrapping without disturbing the inner layer of seaweed is a puzzle more confounding than Zen poetry, on par with making an omelet without breaking an egg.

There is a secret to unwrapping onigiri, just like there is a secret to collecting cobra venom. The Japanese make the process look easy, but their professionalism is a result of years and years of painstaking practice. In fact, origami was developed solely to train children in the delicate art of eating lunch. Only after mastering the intricate folds of paper cranes, dolphins and thousand petal chrysanthemums is a Japanese elementary school student deemed ready to advance to unwrapping rice balls.

Having lived in Japan for almost a year, my success rate unwrapping onigiris stands at about 50 percent. Success depends on patience more than skill. The first tear is made by gripping a thin strip of plastic at the top of the rice ball and pulling ever so gently until the wrapping is split down the middle. Next, grip one side of the wrapping in each hand and in one smooth motion pull the halves apart without disturbing the seaweed.

For the sake of sanity, it’s important to remember that ruined onigiris still taste fine, although you look like an idiot picking through a handful of rice in public. In fact, as I found out last week, butchering an onigiri can have consequences far more severe than simple embarrassment and inconvenience. In my case, a particularly inept unwrapping job gained me entrance to the local mental hospital – that story coming later this week.


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