Cycle 12 – Item 159
13 (Sun) June 2021
Fancy Triangle-Shaped Onigiri
-Changgok, Sujeong, Seongnam, Gyeonggi, Republic of Korea-
with the Family
Newbery 100 Medals, 100 Meals (50) (see also 100 NEWBERY M&Ms)
While reading the 100 books that have been awarded the annual Newbery Medal since 1922, I will also attempt to create one dish for every book, a dish that is directly referenced in or indirectly inspired by the events of the book. Food plays a strong role in many of the stories; not surprising as the characters in most of the books are faced with adversity of some sort, including poverty, so they’re often very hungry and thus grateful whenever they get a bite to eat – as we all should be at every meal (i.e., give us this day our daily bread). The dishes will be featured as posts on Give Me This Day.
Kira Kira (2005) by Cynthia Kadohata. Set in the 1950s, the book is about Katie Takeshima, whose family moves to Georgia after their supermarket in Iowa goes out of business. Katie struggles to adapt to her environment, where she is the only Japanese-American in her class, her parents are overworked in their new jobs at the chicken hatchery, and her older sister and best-friend Lynn becomes more distant.
It was good. Told from Katie’s first person perspective, the story isn’t really about immigrants, just a kid trying to grow up and make sense of the world, though signs of racism do appear – this being the Deep South, just a few years after WWII – even if Katie doesn’t pick up on them for what they are. The book is ultimately about hope and courage: “kira-kira” = glittering shining, i.e., how Lynn teaches Katie to look ahead towards a brighter future.
In contrast to my criticisms against books about immigrants, minorities, slaves, foreign lands written by White American authors who have no business doing so, I do appreciate that Kira-Kira was written by a Japanese-American author. Though I’m not Japanese-American, I can attest as an Asian-American that the tone and details felt generally authentic.
However, I’m rather weary of how Asian-Americans are constantly portrayed in fiction as immigrants – characters always work in or own a supermarket/restaurant/dry-cleaner, speak broken English, try to maintain cultural ties to the motherland – whether in books or movies or TV programs. I’m also wary that such portrayals perpetuate the “perpetual foreigner” problem, as manifested these days through the rise in violence against Asian-Americans. This is why I found, for example, When You Trap a Tiger (2021) (12.075 Bibim Naeng Myeon) and Hello, Universe (2018) (11.282 Crustless Ham, Lettuce, and Tomato Sandwich) quite refreshing in featuring strong characters who are Asian American but not struggling immigrants.
One critical detail that tends to be missing in books written by White American authors about other cultures – at least the early Newbery books (pre-1970s) – is food. The absence of food is specially glaring when the book takes place in a culture rich with cuisine, such as China – Young Fu on the Upper Yangtze (1933) (11.348 Beggars’ Food) – or Spain – Shadow of a Bull (1965) (11.360 Jamón Serrano). The idea of featuring food likely never even occurred to the authors, coming from mid-20th-century America, when food wasn’t really a big deal.
A seemingly small point, but onigiri plays an important role in Kira-Kira.
[paraphrased in part]
Rice balls are called onigiri, and they were the only thing I knew how to make. To make onigiri, you wash your hands and cover your palms with salt. Then you grab a handful of rice and shape it into a lump. My mother made fancy triangle-shaped onigiri, with seaweed and pickled plums, but I just made the basic kind. Someday I when I got older, I would have to learn to make the fancy onigiri too, or nobody would marry me.
It’s what they eat, among other things, when the Japanese members of the community get together to socialize. It’s what Katie’s mother makes for Katie to eat while waiting in the car during the mother’s workshift, because they don’t have money for a babysitter. It serves as a cultural pivot point when Katie trades her rice balls to a newly acquainted White friend for bread. It also symbolizes the Old World mentality that valued culinary skills in matrimonial marketability.
Only an author who had lived the life would even think to write about onigiri and incorporate it into the story at so many levels.
This time, I improvised a filling of canned tuna + masago + mayo + sriracha sauce, something along the lines of “spicy tuna” found in American sushi restaurants, and pressed them into rice sprinkled with black sesame seeds, using my triangular onigiri mold (I would have no problems getting married). Taking Katie’s advice, I covered my palms in sea salt and pressed the triangles manually following the mold. Finally, I wrapped them in strips of nori.
They were good. The best part was the salt; freshly applied, the crystals were largely intact and popped with every bite; whereas soy sauce makes rice taste like soy sauce, the salt made the rice taste – surprisingly, though not surprisingly – ricier. The spicy tuna filling was fine. The seaweed, applied primarily for the purpose of garniture, also worked as a grip point for the onigiri to be pinched while eating. I should make these more often.
(See also GLOBAL FOOD GLOSSARY)
(See also RESTAURANTS IN KOREA)