World of Mouth: Oh Hanami!

The column that brings you food festivals from around the world; discover how the Japanese celebrate the cherry blossoms with a family picnic.

Japanese Bamboo Forest 311 (photo credit: Moran Snir)
Japanese Bamboo Forest 311
(photo credit: Moran Snir)
Johanna Bailey is a blogger, freelance writer and student at the Hofmann Culinary School in Barcelona, Spain.
In Japan, the arrival of Spring is announced by the cherry blossoms which blanket the parks and hillsides in a froth of pink, white and lilac. As the season approaches, the Japanese avidly study the cherry blossom forecast which predicts when the blossoms will be in bloom in different parts of the country. This way they can plan the ideal date for their hanami, the annual picnics that take place under the cherry blossom trees. It is a time that for sharing food, fun and often copious amounts of beer and sake with friends, family and coworkers.
Right now, Japan is in mourning which casts a definite shadow over what is normally a joyous time of year. Signs have been posted in many parks around the country, asking people to not indulge in the annual hanami festivities out of respect for the recent tragedies.The sentiment was depicted perfectly by Christoph Niemann's March 28th cover of The New Yorker magazine. The illustration is called “Dark Spring” and features cherry blossoms set against black background.
While undoubtedly there are those who feel that exercising restraint and sobriety is the most appropriate response at a time like this, there are many other Japanese people who feel it is more important than ever to celebrate the beauty of nature, family and friendship by going ahead with their hanami.
A hanami is a picnic, so naturally there is plenty of food involved. Some people prepare dishes at home to share, however there are also many who choose to pick up a pre-made “Ohanami bento” box. Whether homemade or store-bought, popular hanami foods include dango (rice flour dumplings coated with sweet soy sauce and served on a skewer), sushi rolls,  yakitori (grilled chicken on a skewer) and Inarizushi (sweetly seasoned fried tofu pouches stuffed with sushi rice). Probably the most popular hanami food of all is onigiri (seasoned rice that has been pressed into a triangular or round shape and then wrapped, usually with nori seaweed). The onigiri will often contain fillings such as grilled fish or pickled plums.
The Japanese have been eating some form of onigiri for at least 1,000 years. There is evidence that soldiers of the Heian period (794-1192) used to carry them as snacks and they also make an appearance in Lady Murasaki’s 11th century diary. The enduring popularity of onigiri isn’t surprising considering that it’s actually a pretty ingenious little snack food, perfect for picnics or situations where eating utensils aren’t readily available. Onigiri used to be mainly prepared in the home but in recent years, they’ve become the signature food of the konbini (convenience store) and there are even some cafes and restaurants that specialize in them.
You may not have any cherry blossoms where you are, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have your own hanami. A picnic is always a great way to celebrate the gifts that life has given us and what better food to bring along than Japanese onigiri?
makes 4 large onigiri
-4 cups of freshly cooked short-grained Japanese sushi rice
-2 sheets of dried nori (seaweed)
-black sesame seeds (optional)
Fillings: Go wild! Possibilities include tuna fish, pickled plums, broiled fish, fried chicken.  You can also add a bit of mayonnaise or soy sauce for extra flavoring.
-Slice the nori into one inch thick slices and lay it out so that the dull side of the nori is facing up.
-Put some water in a small bowl and some salt in another bowl.
-Moisten your hands with the water and then rub about a teaspoon’s worth of salt onto your hands (this flavors the rice and prevents it from sticking to your hands).
-Scoop up a small amount of rice and press it into the shape you want.
-Use a finger to press a dimple into the rice ball and put your filling in the hole.
-Take a strip of nori and wrap it around the rice ball, making sure to cover the hole.
-If you are using sesame seeds, you can now roll the rice ball in the sesame seeds.
-Wrap in plastic to conserve if you are not going to eat right away.
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