Ancient Japanese Lunchtime: Rice Balls

Who's tired of sushi? We are! Well, it's not that we're actually tired of it, such a thing doesn't really seem possible. But it would be great if there were another way to enjoy sushi ingredients without having to stare down another roll combo lunch special. Oh wait, Japan invented it 900 years ago. Before sushi. Way before sushi.

Readily available in Japanese neighborhood shops and supermarkets, rice balls are a great way to break out of your spicy tuna rut. Try salted plum, cooked salmon or broiled eel.

From samurai to geisha, rice balls (known in Japan as onigiri) have long been eaten as a quick, portable and satisfying lunch. Fillings typically included salted, fermented or pickled ingredients less likely to spoil quickly. While sushi was later invented to preserve fish, rice balls were intended to preserve rice. While the outermost layer exposed to the elements might become stale, the glutinous rice's natural stickiness formed a seal that kept the grains inside fresher for longer. An outer wrapping of nori, or pressed seaweed, serves as tasty, edible and super-healthy plastic wrap.

Today, a substantial percentage of rice balls in Japan and in Asian restaurants and supermarkets worldwide are made by machines (albeit Japanese ones), with ingenious packaging that keeps the seaweed and rice separate until chow time. If you pull the wrapper apart just right, the seaweed transfers and adheres to the rice as if it were made by hand. This prevents SSS — Soggy Seaweed Syndrome, a known rice ball killer. Just another feat of edible Japanese engineering we wish we'd thought of ourselves. Eat your heart out, square watermelons.