Their taste is new to most people in the West. Mouth-puckering sour, though pleasant, their saltiness is pronounced but acceptable and make a perfect match for many dishes. At our home umeboshi are often added to onigiri. Those hand pressed rice balls that for some miracle reason taste best if they are made by the hands of one who loves you.
These days it is easy to buy ready made umeboshi at Asian and organic supermarkets, but nothing beats them being home made. Getting umé, botanically prunus mume or Japanese apricots in Germany is not easy. Until our umé tree yields fruit I am using local apricots instead.
How umeboshi are made
Traditionally umeboshi are being pickled – often but not always with red shiso leaves – in Japan’s rainy season and are left to ferment in their own brine for about six weeks, before they get laid out and dry in the summer sun for three days.
What seems easy in Japan with its hot summers is a challenge in Germany. Even more so this year, where summer took a long time coming. But finally the weather forecast predicted a couple of hot days. Perfect timing for my ‘umeboshi’, that will get their finishing touch of summer sun.
Want to make umeboshi at home?
This years umeboshi pickling season is over, but if you want to join me in making umeboshi next time, sign up for the newsletter and I will guide you through it step-by-step.
Truth to be told, our home is often chaotic. Our girls speed through our home and our life boosting with energy, laughter and all sorts of ideas. Naturally this is not just a recipe for love and understanding between the siblings, it also has quite a potential for conflicts… But when it comes to my question what they would like to have for dinner they shout out “rice” in perfect harmony. If they would get to choose they would always have rice, even for breakfast. No need for me to test the waters with ‘classic European kid’s dishes’ like Spaghetti with ‘red sauce’. None of our kids would touch them.
Gohan means rice and meal
The taste of freshly cooked rice is truly delicious and I can think of no Japanese person who would disagree with that. But rice is not just a side dish. ‘Gohan’, the Japanese word for rice also means meal and as such it represents the significance of rice in Japan where it is always put onto the ‘place of honor’ (the lower left) in the traditional meal setting.
Onigiri instead of sandwich
Serving my girl’s preference for rice, they usually find Onigiri, also referred to as Omusubi, in their lunchbox. Onigiri are small pressed rice ‘balls’, typically in the shape of a triangle with different seasonings and fillings. Small, affordable and convenient to take with you as an instant, delicious way to satisfy your hunger.
In Japan Onigiri are practically sold on each corner, whether in a convenience store or dedicated stalls. Like their Japanese peers, my girls were started on Onigiri as a baby, which probably explains their food preference. Outside of Japan there isn’t the luxury of getting an Onigiri on the way, but given that it is healthy, delicious and convenient, it is worthwhile making them yourself. But before we start with how to make Onigiri we have to start with how to cook proper rice.
Cooking Japanese Rice
Generally speaking you can cook rice on a stove or with a rice cooker. I know that I could go into more detail about the type of pots and the type of heat sources, but that would take me too far.
Using a rice cooker with a warmer feature has the advantage of cooking rice independent from when you need it. Wonderful fur busy people or late riser that don’t want to miss out on freshly cooked rice in the morning e.g. to make Onigiri. Not speaking of being a regular life saver for me in getting a meal on the table in less than 10 minutes (see recipe here).
Using a rice cooker is pretty straight forward, but for those who prefer a step-by-step guide for its use I recommend an article that Daniela from NipponInsider wrote on it (in German only). In that article she also took a closer look at the different technical features of today’s rice cookers, so if you consider buying one and can understand German, hop over and have a look.
As convenient as rice cookers are, rice can be cooked equally to perfection on a stove, which I will introduce to you in detail below.
Things worth knowing when cooking Japanese Rice
Independent from your method of preparation, when it comes to Japanese rice there are a few things to keep in mind:
Wash the rice thoroughly The objective is to remove any dirt, but even more the ‘nuka’ (rice bran) that would cause the rice to become mushy.
In order to do so wash the rice in a bowl with cold water, gently rubbing the grains against your palms or the side of the bowl. Change the water and wash again. Repeat until the water runs clear. Drain the rice in strainer.
The cloudy water that you get not just has a name (‘togi jiru’), it also has various culinary and non-culinary uses. Check them out here, before you throw it out.
Regulate humidity of the grains Rice expands when absorbing water, but not uniformity.
Some parts of the grains absorb water faster than others and as such fast changes in humidity and temperature lead to cracked rice grains, which then would get mushy in the cooking process. To avoid cracks you should
a) let the rice sit in the strainer for about 30 Minutes after washing and afterwards
b) let the rice sit for another 10-15 Minutes in the water of the rice cooker or the pot before turning on the heat.
Recipe for 2 cups cooked Japanese Rice
1 cup (200ml) Japanese rice
220 ml Water
An important matter upfront: Even though you might be tempted, do not lift the lid until the full cooking process is completed (I jut did it to get you the pictures)!!!
Place the washed and soaked rice with the water in a heavy (2-3l)-pot and a closed lid on the stove and bring it to a boil on high heat. You can easily hear the water boiling and usually the lid starts to move as well.
Reduce the heat to medium and let the rice absorb the water completely. This takes about 5 minutes and even though you might think that this is hard to notice without peaking into the pot, rely on your ears. You will hear a fizzling sound that indicates the full absorbance. Now put your rice again on high heat, but only for a moment (about 30 seconds), before you take it off the stove and have it self-steam for another 10 to 15 minutes. Do not omit the self-steaming. It is important for the texture.
Fluff your rice with a shamoji (Japanese Rice paddle), serve and enjoy! And as we are all set now to start with how to make Onigiri, subscribe to our newsletter to make sure not to miss a recipe.
It was way too warm in Tokyo the past weeks, it felt more like spring and I must admit that I was tempted to decorate my home with the first tulips in happy anticipation of spring. Already two weeks ago I also saw the first mountain vegetables for sale that usually come to market middle of February.
Very odd. But to straighten the seasons winter has kicked in this week and almost suppressed all the happy spring feelings. Almost, but not quite, as this morning I saw the first fully open plum blossom in my garden. I know that plum trees are supposed to bloom when there is still snow on the branches, but nevertheless for me they are a sign that spring is not very far away anymore.
Celebrating this finding I spontaneously decided to make my girls umé boshionigigi (hand pressed rice balls with pickled plum) for their lunchbox today.
I mixed warm rice (thanks to the programming function of my rice cooker) with freshly roasted white sesame seeds and yukari, which are the red shiso leaves that are dried and pulverized after they have been used in the pickling of umé boshi (pickled plums)*. They are utterly delicious and have a subtle sour and salty plum flavor. My girls are addicted to onigiri with yukari and my oldest one even insisted to shape her own onigiri this morning. She lately enjoys to eat the umé boshi as well, even though they can be quite sour, so we added a little bit of it in the center.
Yukari is especially wonderful when packing onigiri in a bento box to enjoy later, as the containing salt preserves the rice from going bad. Not that this would be an issue with todays temperatures, but when the weather gets warmer and picnics become more popular it is a good thing to do.
A word of caution though. Most of the Yukari that is sold in ordinary supermarkets in Japan contains a lot of questionable ingredients, including Monosodium Glutamate or short MSG. If you are a Japan resident or travel to Japan have a look at a store called Tomizawa.
Tomizawa sells Yukari without MSG (as well as other types of Furikake – dry rice seasoning). In Tokyo they have shops throughout the city, including Shinjuku Keio, Yurakucho Lumine, Futakotamagawa and Shibuya Seibu. It is a wonderful place to shop for high quality Kambutsu (dried products) and bakery ingredients. Nowadays they label their products bilingual in Japanese and English, so you shouldn’t encounter problems finding what you are looking for. And it enables you to stroll around their store and discover wonderful new products you might have not known before (like e.g. amazingly purple sweet mashed potato flakes – great if you have guests). I usually leave the store with more than what I had planned, but the good news is that we are talking about Kambutsu, which by nature have a very long shelf life, so I know that at some point I will find a good use for whatever I purchase.
* “Nothing goes to waste in the Japanese kitchen”. For me this is one oft the most important mantras in Japanese Cooking. It is simply amazing how resourceful the Japanese are when preparing their food. Starting with the resources they need for cooking to using an ingredient fully, with many ingredients having more than one use. But discussing this goes beyond the scope of this article and I will write about it in more detail in a separate post. Sign up for the newsletter if you haven’t already and you won’t miss it.