Japanese Riceballs

image: Sorted

I sent this to a publication a month ago and it just got rejected. No hard feelings. Rereading it now I realize it’s a really hideous cross between Cormac McCarthy and PG Wodehouse. Not good. Anyway I’ll publish it here on my blog instead. Hope you like it.

This is based on a true story.

We’d been watching alternatingly between the new wall clock and the entrance door of the restaurant for the past two hours in a depressing silence. My brother sat behind the counter with elbows propped on the surface and cheeks drooping against his hands and eyes clamped in a Chinese squint. I sat on the other side and each pedestrian that passed by the entrance made me jump on my seat a little. At last I couldn’t take it and I sighed and turned toward my brother and buried my hair in my hands and groaned. He patted me on the shoulder.

Any time now, he said.

Yeah.

I can just feel it.

Sure.

I mean we have a nice sign.

Right.

And a unique product.

Right.

We’re sure to catch attention any —

The bell over the entrance door tinkled. My heart stopped and I held my breath until I turned around to see who it was. It was only our dear mother.

Hey mama, my brother said.

She stood by the door and looked around the restaurant with her lips were curled in a slight grimace. A little smaller than I thought, she mumbled.

It’s the best we can get, my brother said. For now.

Of course, she said and then looked at us both and smiled. So. How are my little businessmen doing?

Still no customers, I said.

She held her arms out. Well then. Here you have your first.

Who?

Me.

You?

Who else?

But ma. That doesn’t count.

She ignored this and made her way to the counter and looked at the menu and tapped her lip with a finger. I’ll have one of those. Those. Um. The one you’ve been making in the house all month. What do you call them? Woniriri? Onseaweed?

Onigiri, I said.

Onigiri. Right. That one.

They’re all onigiri, mama.

Is that so.

You choose the flavor of onigiri, my brother said.

What do you have?

Let’s see. There’s tuna and mayo, crab and mayo, dried fish, sour plum.

What do you suggest?

The tuna’s really good, I said.

The tuna then.

Got it.

I stood up from the stool and entered into the counter and went to the back of the restaurant. Before we opened the store my brother and I had spent the entire month perfecting the recipe for onigiri, or Japanese riceballs. I had tasted it on a trip to Japan and really liked it and thought it would be a good idea to bring it to our own country and start a small restaurant business. When I got home I told my brother about the idea and asked if he wanted be my business partner and he said yes. We’ve fought a lot since we were toddlers but he’s always been supportive of me whenever I have another one of my grand ideas.

It turns out it’s not so hard to make onigiri: you just shape rice into a ball and you put filling in the center and wrap it with a sheet of seaweed. The hard part is getting the ingredients. To make an authentic onigiri you need the special Japanese rice variety, which is stickier and softer than normal, and wine vinegar and fillings and dried seaweed. I had to drive one and a half hours to an Asian specialty store in traffic-congested Chinatown and the first time that I went it was closed. Turned out it was Chinese New Year, the one day of the year that the Chinese take a break. Who knew. I had to go return another day.

My brother and I spent the entire month practicing how to make the onigiri. The perfect rice to filling proportion. The best way to shape the rice and hide the filling inside. The most presentable way to wrap the rice ball in the sheet of dried seaweed. By the time we had finished our room was a mess. Unreachable raw rice grains hid all over the nooks and crannies of our desks and the room had started to smell like seaweed. I figure my brother and I must have put on a good five kilos between us from eating all that rice.

To put up the restaurant we got a nice commercial space owned by a friend of a friend of our dad’s officemate. It was located near our house and we got it real cheap. Our dad lent us money for the first few months of rent. Since we still didn’t have enough money to buy our own equipment we decided to prepare all the onigiri using our family’s rice cooker the day before.

I took out one of such onigiri — tuna flavor — and went out of the backroom and gave it to my mother.

How much? she said.

We can’t let you pay, ma, I said.

Why not?

Because.

She pulled out her wallet but I stopped her. Ma please, I said.

Take it, she said. She held out a bill.

I can’t. It would be just like recycling money.

Well. You sure?

Yes.

Alright.

She slipped the wallet back in her pocket and unwrapped the onigiri and took a crispy bite. I watched her reactions nervously, watched as she rolled her eyes from right to left to right again as she chewed.

Hey, she said. It’s not bad.

I sighed.

Thanks mom, my brother said. He beamed at me but I shook my head and tried to hid me pleased reaction.

You have to say that, I said. You’re our mom.

She finished the onigiri and she licked the sticky rice off her fingers. Well, she said. I’ll say it anyway. Once word gets around this place will be full in no time. This is really good. I think you have something here.

I hope so, I said.

Just be patient, she said. It’s only the first day.

She hugged each of us and wished us luck and then left. My brother and I maintained our previous positions by the counter. I tried to read a novel that I had brought with me but my nervousness turned the words into meaningless scratches on the page. They could very well have been Japanese characters. A little past 1pm it started to get warm and I fell asleep.

When the bell tinkled and the first customer came in I thought I was dreaming. It was only when my brother shook me awake did I realize that it was the real deal. I jumped up and shook my head and tried to put on my best smile. The customer came in soaking wet through his long-sleeved shirt and he wiped his face and neck with a sweat saturated handkerchief.

A hot day, isn’t it sir, I said.

Is it true? the customer said. Is it really true?

What’s true?

Your sign. You’re selling onigiri.

Yes sir.

His face brightened up. I love onigiri, he said. I love anything Japanese.

I made a proud gesture with my hands. Well sir, I said. You’ve come to the right place.

He made his way to the menu and while looking down at it said, I’ve always wanted someone to do this. Introduce the glory of the authentic Japanese rice ball to our native palate.

That’s what we hope to do sir.

He tapped on the menu. I think I’ll have two of the crab and mayo, he said.

Excellent choice, I said.

I made my way to the back of the restaurant and opened the chest containing the onigiri. Immediately a dank and sour smell emanated from the premade riceballs, like some cruel announcement of a premature death. Oh God, I whispered.

I took one out and unwrapped it and saw that the seaweed had gone soggy and the rice had glazed over. A thin stratum of foam had formed on the surface. It smelled foul and I never smelled anything like it and it made by stomach turn as though in accordance to some primal instinct. I threw the riceball in the trashcan.

I peeked my head out the doorway and called my brother.

Is there a problem? said the customer.

No no, I said. Just needed a little hand.

I gestured to my brother to come quickly.

What is it? he said.

They’ve gone bad.

What do you mean?

Spoiled. Rotten. Expired. I think it’s the heat.

All of them?

All of them.

Oh Lord.

What do you think we should do?

He shrugged at me. Send him away.

What?

You can’t have him eat rotten onigiri. He’ll tell everyone.

But if we just send him away, he’ll tell everyone.

Damn.

What.

Good point.

I put my hands on my face and I let out a groan of desperation. My brother started to pace around the small room.

We gotta think quick, my brother said.

Don’t I know it.

We were silent for a moment and then his face lit up. Listen, he said.

Tell me. Quick.

Here’s an idea. You run fast to the house and make new onigiri. If you move quickly and run real fast, I think you’ll be able to do it in fifteen minutes. Meanwhile I can entertain him so that he won’t get impatient.

That’s won’t work, wise guy. We already finished all the ingredients.

You’ll have to make do with what ma already has at home.

That’s nuts.

Have a better idea?

No.

Well then.

I don’t like the sound of this.

Well you better decide fast. The customer’s waiting.

Alright. I’ll go.

We got out of the backroom and I ran toward the entrance door but had to stop when the customer called out to me. Where are you going?

Um. I have to get some. Uh.

Ingredients, my brother said.

You mean you don’t have everything ready?

Sorry sir, I said. It’s our first time.

He rolled his eyes in frustration. It better be quick, he said.

It’ll only take some minutes, my brother said. He gestured with his head for me to go.

I ran like I never did since physical education class. Which means I had to stop at intervals to catch my breath. Our house was about seven minutes away from the restaurant walking and with my pace I got there in five minutes. I burst into the house panting and sweatsoaked and my brothers and mother who were in the middle of lunch at the dining table looked up at me.

I need some rice, I said. Quick. Any rice will do.

Rice? my mom said.

Rice.

We didn’t prepare any today.

What?

Want me to cook you some?

No. That’ll take too long.

We have some pasta. She gestured toward the spaghetti noodles they were having for lunch.

Goddamn.

My younger brothers gasped and looked at my mom.

Watch that mouth of yours, she said.

Sorry.

And stop biting your fingernails. How many times do I have to tell you?

I took my hand off my mouth. Look, I said. Can I have some pasta?

Help yourself.

I took a plate and started to pile pasta onto it and then I rushed to the kitchen.

Hey, my mom called, what are you doing with that?

No time to explain mom, I called back.

I took a knife out and started to chop up the strings of cooked pasta into tiny pieces in the hope that they would somehow resemble grains of rice. It didn’t look half bad. At least that’s what I told myself to mitigate an oncoming panic attack. I rushed to the pantry and put some salt and soy sauce to add a little Asian flavor.

Do we have crab? I called out to my mom.

Crab?

Crab.

No we don’t. What’s going on there?

I didn’t answer. I opened the refrigerator and looked through the meat freezer. There it was, the red package peeping out of the ice. Crab sticks. Not actually crab but tastes almost like the real thing. I took out the package and got two of the sticks and chopped them up. I got a jar of mayonnaise from the refrigerator and put a spoonful into the mix. I also added some drops of soy sauce and a drop of sriracha sauce because, I thought, what’s more Asian than sriracha.

I looked at my watch. Ten minutes elapsed since I left the store. I started to spoon this crab mixture into the improvised rice I had made and then I wet my hands on the sink and started to form this makeshift onigiri into balls. They looked nothing like onigiri.

It still lacked the dried seaweed covering. I searched through the vegetable section in the refrigerator and the closest I could find that resembled onigiri was lettuce. I took a leaf out of one lettuce head and tasted it. I held back a rush of despair I felt gurgling within me and got two more leaves and started to sprinkle salt on it. I took the two riceballs I had made and wrapped each one with the leaves.

I took some steps back to contemplate what I had done. They looked abominable. I let out an anguished squeak.

What’s going on there?

Nothing mom. Everything’s fine.

There was no time to lament nor ruminate. I wrapped these two onigiri individually in plastic wrap and wrapped them both in aluminum foil and I took them to the restaurant.

When I arrived I looked at my watch and saw that a total of eighteen minutes had elapsed. The faces of both the customer and my brother turned to the door and slackened into relief when I entered. As though I had provided an escape from a tense and awkward conversation.

That took a while, said the customer. I’m getting really hungry here.

Sorry sir.

He sighed and shook his head. It better be good.

I didn’t reply. I ran to the back of the room and unwrapped the two onigiri improvisations and set them on a plate. When I brought them out to serve I heard my brother’s breathing stop as he saw the abominations.

The customer eyed the plate with suspicion. He looked up at me and pointed at it. What is that? he said.

Onigiri, I said.

Onigiri?

Anything wrong sir?

Looks nothing like how I remember it.

It’s our own take. Our signature style.

If you say so.

Meshiagare.

What did you call me?

Meshiagare. Enjoy the meal. In Japanese.

The customer coughed and smiled. Ah. Yes. Yes. Of course. I didn’t hear you right. Arigato.

I bowed in my best Japanese style and so did my brother and the customer bowed back at us. I went into the backroom and my brother followed me.

What in God’s name, my brother said.

Shh, I said. Keep your voice down.

Lettuce? Lettuce? What were you thinking?

I did with what I could find.

What filling did you use?

Crab sticks and mayo.

Japanese mayo?

No. Regular mayo.

Regular mayo? He slapped his hands to forehead. And the rice? What kind did you use?

Not rice. Pasta.

What the.

That’s all there was available.

We ought to stab ourselves. The Japanese do that, you know.

Hey. This was your idea.

I know I know. He sighed. We should give him a refund, he said.

You’re right.

He started biting his fingernails and so did I. The two of us paced around the room in a tense, nervous silence. As though awaiting the fatal diagnosis of some doctor.

Ting. I recognized the metallic sound of the counter’s bell and it made my arm hairs stand on end and it sent a tickling chill down my backbone. My brother and I looked at each other. He nodded to me and I to him and we walked out to the restaurant like two soldiers stepping into some hopeless warfare, death imminent.

The customer stared at us intensely and pushed his empty plate across the counter. I tried not to reveal any emotion. He wiped his mouth with a napkin and cleared his throat.

I’ve been to Japan quite a number of times, he said. Never, not once, have I tasted onigiri like this.

I gulped. I felt my brother tense up behind me.

How did this, this idea occur to you? the customer said.

Look, I said. We promise to do it better. It was just our first time.

Then I’m going to have to tell all my friends about this experience.

No, please. Please sir.

Why not? He looked at us, puzzled. Then his expression flitted to that of enlightenment. Ah, he said. I see what you’re trying to do. The Japanese secrecy technique.

What? I said.

What? my brother said.

The secrecy technique, said the customer. Very Japanese. Keeping your restaurant for select customers only. To keep the quality and prestige of your product high. I salute you for such dedication to your art.

My brother and I looked at each other in confusion.

That was an excellent onigiri, the customer said. Fidelity to the Asian concept combined with an eccentric, risky, but overall exquisite Western touch. The rice could have been cooked a little more, but it had an interesting texture. The customer kissed his fingers. Four and a half stars. Congratulations. You boys have a bright future ahead of you. Arigato. Arigato to you.

I didn’t know what to say.

A shame this restaurant must be kept a secret, the customer said.

Before my brother and I could realize what was happening he had put his money on the counter and stood up and bowed to us solemnly. He walked to the door but before he exited he stopped and turned to us and said, I will visit again if I am ever back this way.

Aspiring novelist. Frustrated theologian.

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