Box Lunch: Pack your bento with healthful Japanese rice balls

Whatever happened to the days when we looked forward to cracking open our lunchboxes and found food we wanted to eat? Bento, translated as “boxed lunch,” has been the answer in Japan to “What’s for lunch?” for hundreds of years. Bento were originally simple, portable meals but have evolved into something of an art.

A bento is composed of a small, divided box filled with portions of rice, meat and vegetables. But onigiri, or rice balls, are the cornerstone of bento.

Onigiri, also known as omusubi, are made by pressing hot japonica (sushi) rice together with either a press or your hands. Rice balls can be plain, stuffed with filling, mixed with seasonings, wrapped with nori (seaweed sheets) or even toasted with barbecue sauce.

In our house, making onigiri is as fun as making pizza, but much less guilt-inducing. A cup of rice versus a cup of cheese – there’s really no contest healthwise. And as for taste, anyone who tries onigiri becomes an instant fan.

Rice balls are great by themselves, or they can round out the bento equation – a ratio that divides lunch into portions of rice, protein, vegetables and dessert. For the health conscious, the ratios should be 2-3-1-1 or 1-2-3-1. And onigiri are great multitaskers. Fill them with egg or chicken and you’ve got your protein all wrapped up and good to go, freeing up space for vegetables and fruits.

Rice balls are easy to make, customizable and handy as a portable meal. They’re a travel food and will keep well with little to no refrigeration, depending on the filling. Try filling onigiri with your fave lunch item, sans bread if it’s a sandwich. Or you can do what I do and stuff onigiri with leftovers. Making rice balls with last night’s repast is a clever way to transform it into a fast,
unique lunch.

Don’t relegate onigiri to just lunch, however. Rice balls are fantastic party food. Introduce your friends to the wild side of white rice by throwing an onigiri party complete with an assortment of inventive toppings. See who can be the most artistic with a handful of rice, a couple sheets of seaweed and an array of thinly sliced edibles.

When making onigiri, wash the rice by placing it in a bowl and running cool tap water over it. Rub the rice briskly between your hands underneath the water. Immediately drain the water and repeat until the water becomes clear.

Be as precise as possible when steaming the rice. Rice that’s too dry will crumble instead of stick.

Enliven plain rice further with various seasonings, known as furikake. Furikake are mixtures of dried egg, roe, wasabi, fish, sesame and more. Make your own seasonings with seeds, nuts or finely minced vegetables.

Always dampen your hands in cold water before handling the rice. It’s gooey and will stick to you as easily as it sticks to itself.

Traditional fillings for onigiri include salmon, tsukemono (Japanese pickles) and seafood.

Want artfully shaped onigiri but don’t have an onigiri press? Choose a deep cookie cutter and place it on a cutting board. Firmly stuff it halfway with hot rice. Add a bit of filling into the center of the rice. Top off the cookie cutter with more rice, making sure to compress the rice as tightly as possible. Remove the onigiri by pushing it through the cutter.

Rachel Bigler is a Tower Grove South-based Japanese food and culture writer who lost nearly 200 pounds in part by eating traditional Japanese meals. She spreads the good word on her Web site,