Thursday, March 29, 2007

Onigiri Rice Balls and Other Tidbits

Onigiri Rice Balls and Other Tidbits

Art has two Japanese lessons this week and on Wednesday after his second lesson, our new friend and tutor, Narumi offers to take us to a special Onigiri shop. Onigiri is a rice ball that can be filled with any number of things. Earlier on this trip, I discover a triangular onigiri filled with cooked salmon available at many supermarkets. The chunk of protein embedded deep within the rice and wrapped in seaweed has kept my blood sugar even on numerous occasions.

This special onigiri shop, Memichi, is nearby our apartment and adjacent to the Tomari Elementary school. A white noren (curtain) hangs in the doorway of the tiny shop. Narumi parts the noren, looks inside and tells us we will need to wait for a few minutes. There is a customer already inside. When we finally step into the tiny shop, a kitchen annex built off the front of a traditional Okinawan house, I am immediately intrigued. It is a one woman operation and the owner, a woman about my age, stands behind a small counter, a dozen small pottery bowls along side her each filled with unusual mixtures. (Unusual by my standards.) She is forming rice balls from a nutty brown rice and mindfully stuffing each ball with tidbits from the many dishes alongside of her. Behind her is a cluttered back sink and a shelf with a menagerie of handmade clay animals and the walls of her tiny shop are papered with paintings, snippets of paper and posters. I sense immediately that I am in the presence of an artist and watch enthralled as this woman creates rice balls, sealing them carefully with two square sheets of seaweed and then filling in any gaps with thin strips of seaweed moistened with water from yet another shallow clay dish. Naromi chats comfortably with this woman and I learn that she has been taught this culinary art from Sato Hastume, a respected teacher in the Aomori Prefecture of mainland Japan. She hands me toothpicks to taste the many ingredients from her magical bowls and I choose the stuffing and spices for my rice ball.

We order a “lunch set” to eat while our “take out” rice balls are created and we sit on low stools at the single square table and sip tea while our magical chef prepares our lunch. She places two, 5” sardines on a kitchen tray and I wonder if they will be part of our lunch? They are obviously cooked, but their heads and tails are attached and their glassy eyes stare blankly. We are each served covered lacquer bowls of soup, and Narumi tells me to let it steep so that the shaved dried fish can soften and the flavor permeate the soup. Small plates with our specially created rice ball, a 5” sardine and pickled vegetables are set before each of us. I watch anxiously as two more small plates are prepared with two fresh chunks of tofu, one chunk topped with dried fish shavings, and the other chunk topped with a whole grey pickled “goldfish.” I know I cannot enjoy eating this tiny whole fish, head and all, and Narumi, sensing my discomfort “trades” out my fish for the fish shavings atop her tofu. I eat the tofu and fish shavings with grateful pleasure. In spite of all the flavorings put into the rice ball, it is bland until I reach the treasure in the center. Narumi tells me to alternate bites of the sardine with the rice ball. I nibble on the sardine, bones and all and understand that it truly adds flavor to the rice ball. The stuffing within the rice is wonderful and I drink my soup and slurp out the softened shaved fish with the help of chopsticks. We are there over an hour, watching the preparation, eating and talking. The price of the set menu lunch is 500 yen each. (About $4.50) I am the second foreigner to be in her shop. I spend a magical hour and Narumi and I each leave with a bag each of rice balls for our families.

Following are a few more “tidbits” about our week: John’s teeth are cleaned for the second time this morning. Last week Art made him an appointment at the dentist, just a block up from our apartment. The price quoted is 2,000 Yen or about $18.00 but when we arrive and they discover that John has braces they tell us apologetically that it will take two sessions to clean his teeth but they don’t increase the price. Last weeks session to clean his bottom teeth takes over 45 minutes and the charge is 1,000 Yen. Today the session to clean his top teeth takes only 25 minutes and charge is just another 1,000 Yen. Remarkable! Art and I both hope that we will find the time to have our teeth cleaned before returning back to the States.

Every Tuesday and Thursday night, Art and John go to the Makashi Dojo to practice karate. Tuesday night, I walk over and watch the second half of the practice and take photographs. The dojo is small and there are three black belts practicing; Art, John and another kid John’s age. The front shoji screen is open to the street allowing the cool night air to enter the practice room. Art’s form is impressive and I take too many photos, ceasing only when until Art shoots me a glance to “cool it.”

Overall this week has been a work week. Our friends, the Shulmans’ arrive a week from tonight, so Art, John and I have focused on getting things wrapped up so that we can spend time touring with our friends. Art has had meetings all week and is moving further in connecting with numerous individuals and businesses. John has worked on his home school assignments and I have focused on finishing up a few more charm designs that I will ship to my casters tomorrow.

We have been in Naha, Okinawa for two months and I am suddenly anxious that our final 3rd month will not give us time to accomplish all that we have planned.

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