Seriously Asian: Grilled Rice


This week's recipe is inspired by a segment on The Splendid Table, which I follow not only for the food but to hear Lynn Rosetto Kasper salivate on air. (Am I the only one?) Hearing people talk about food almost always makes me hungrier than watching videos or looking at photos. Maybe because the imagination is richer than any concrete form?

Lynn was talking about grilled onigiri, and what immediately came to mind was the memory of rice crackling over a low and steady fire, the faint hissing of the grains drying and browning over a grill.

With a little patience, you can toast rice so that a crust forms. The crust will be as crunchy and complex as toasted bread. The rice in the center is still tender, sticky, and tastes doubly sweet when nestled inside its toasted, charred crust.

Most onigiri is not grilled. Sticky, short-grain rice compressed around fillings of fish, pickled vegetables or umeboshi (pickled plums) is the norm. A common home-style treat, onigiri is also sold in Japanese convenience stores and grocery stores where sheets of nori (seaweed) wrappers are covered in plastic to remain crispy.

Grilled onigiri (yaki onigiri) is more often than not is prepared with plain rice. How can something so simple be so good?

The sum here is greater than its parts: white rice, compressed and grilled, needs no embellishment save for a light brushing of soy sauce. But of course, if you prefer to make a glaze for the rice balls—say a mixture of miso and mirin—then by all means. You can also replace up to one-third of the short-grain white rice with brown rice; add any more brown rice and the mixture won't be sticky enough to shape.

And if halfway through the grilling process, you find yourself with less than perfectly formed onigiri, there is no shame in taking those rice balls off the grate and give them a gentle pat here and there.

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