I have a wonderful memory of being about four years old and being given rice balls by a neighbour. They were so good that even now I can recall the fragrance, taste, and texture of the rice.

I used to wander around our neighbourhood to explore gardens, eat succulent stolen snow peas, climb fences, and sit on other people’s porches. One morning, I was sitting on someone’s back porch when the door opened and an elderly Japanese woman appeared. I was about to flee, but her smile stopped me. She stepped towards me without speaking a word and offered me a small plate of rice balls. She’s probably long dead by now, some 40 years later, but I will never forget her, or her strangely pleasant silence, or the delicate rice balls that melted in my mouth.

So the following recipe is my tribute to a woman I didn’t know, who I consider to be my first real friend, someone who gave me something for nothing – for no reason at all.

The first time you make onigiri, you might find it simplest to follow the following list of suggested seasonings and proportions quite closely. But once you get the hang of it, you will be able to improvise and use your own ingredients.

You’ll Need

While the rice is cooking, prepare the fillings in a collection of small dishes so that everything is ready. Pit the umeboshi plums, divide them in half and set them aside. Mix two tablespoons of the bonito flakes with one teaspoon of shoyu (soy sauce) in a small bowl and set aside the rest of the dry bonito on a small plate. Cut some takuan into small pieces, maybe ¼ inch cubes and set them aside. Place the sesame seeds on another small plate. Cut the nori into narrow strips, then dip them in shoyu and set aside.

Now Do This With All of That

Wet both of your hands and sprinkle one with salt (or you could just use salted water to wet your hands, but it’s not the same thing). Place about two tablespoons of rice in your salted hand and make a hollow in the centre. Fill it with half an umeboshi, cover it with rice and shape it into a ball, small enough to fit into a child’s mouth. Repeat with the remaining umeboshi. Now wrap a soaked nori strip around the ball, moistening the ends of the nori to make the overlapping ends adhere. Place on a serving dish.

Repeat the above to make bonito-filled balls, using ¼ of the soaked bonito in each one. Then roll the finished balls in dried bonito and place them on the serving platter.

Shape four balls filled with takuan pickle, four filled with pickled ginger, and then roll all of them in the ground sesame seeds.

Mix any remaining rice with toasted sesame seeds, whole or ground, approximately ¼ teaspoon per ball and shape them. Then wrap a nori strip around each one.

Arrange all of the onigiri on the platter and serve with pickled ginger and a dipping sauce. See sensei’s An Easy Way to Make Not-so-good Food Much Better.

By the way, you can also grill onigiri, then brush them with a little shoyu or some hatcho miso. You can serve them as is, or serve them in a soup, using one per bowl, topped with slivered scallions or flat leafed parsley, over which near-boiling dashi is poured.

And if you try your hand at making rice balls, please check outside your window to see if there is a little hungry kid on your back porch.