Were there first onigiri or nigiri?

Were there first onigiri or nigiri? The word is from the same foundation – nigiru. It means grabbing and squeezing something. In this case, rice. Rice, which is the basis of the Japanese diet. The Japanese place rice on the altar – in their homes and in Buddhist and Shinto temples. Rice is celebrated and honored.  Without Japonica rice, Japan would not be Japan. So how it is with rice onigiri and nigiri? Both onigiri and nigiri we grasp and squeeze the rice – nigiru – and there does not seem to be much difference between onigiri and nigiri. The opposite is true. The “O” in the word decides. Onigiri is simply more important and represents much more Japanese culture than nigiri sushi. “O” means seriousness and admiration and gratitude. “O” is a courtesy prefix. Onigiri as a rice formation has it and nigiri as another rice formation does not. This seems almost unfair, especially since nigiri as a type of sushi are so famous and admired in the world. And everyone wants to try them. And people pay big money for them. As for onigiri it is not so. Onigiri are cheap and yet not so well known. Onigiri is pure unflavored rice ball and have been around since ancient times. Both these facts add to the seriousness of onigiri. The poet Murasaki Shikibu spoke about them in her poems. She lived in the 10th century. So yes, first there were onigiri. They have taken the “o” and so it will be if Japanese culture remains truly Japanese. And  nigiri must further be the unlucky ones without “o”. Why? Because nigiri came with sushi, a relatively new product, and besides they came from Tokyo. This is in Japan always less respectful than when something comes from Nara or Kyoto. Surely you know the sushi story of the innovative young man Yohei Hanaya in the 1930s taking vinegar-flavored cooked rice, squeezing rice into a small oval and putting raw fish on it, which fishermen were unloading from barges in Tokyo Bay, and nigiri canapés were made. Fast food. All this does not allow sushi nigiri to claim the courtesy prefix “o” beating onigiri. Nigiri are just nigiri.

I don’t know how you will accept it, but honestly… I admit, I have more respect for those ordinary onigiri balls that people take with them on a picnic or wherever they have to eat quickly and conveniently. Maybe on the train. Or at school. At work. When I arrive at the airport in Japan and continue by train, the first idea is to buy onigiri for the trip. And I’m not alone. Friends who know each other through Japanese culture they report a similar desire and admiration for onigiri. My favorite is onigiri with tarako – cod eggs. And then follows classic onigiri with umeboshi plums. Onigiri with okaka are great too. Inside are katsuobushi shavings. I admire the sophisticated Japanese way to wrap onigiri with nori seaweed just before eating. To keep the nori crispy and make onigiri top tasty. At first I tore cellophane in my own way, but then I just followed the instructions and it went beautifully. Do you have the same experience?

Onigiri were the first thing I experienced in Japan and felt a bit of familiarity. Onigiri were dear to me, even though they too were to me foreign. Maybe I experienced closeness because they were usually associated with a trip somewhere in nature. Somewhere where I didn’t have to watch so much so as not to do something wrong. With onigiri, I felt strangely free. And I could prepare them myself. Easily. The work when I squeezed the rice and tried to achieve a nice triangular shape was strangely pleasant. As you pass warm rice from hand to hand and imprint your slightly clasped palm, you communicate with Japanese culture. You are squeezing rice and it’s as if someone alive is giving you confidence. It may be an exaggeration, but I have often understood squeezing onigiri as a symbol of welcoming the Japanese people and Japan into my life. Into my heart. The more I got to know Japanese culture, the more I understood why onigiri had an “o” and nigiri sushi had to do without an “o”.  Despite the fact, that I’m a big sushi lover.

Twenty-five years ago, when I founded Miyabi, of course we put onigiri on the menu. I did not feel the same with nigiri, I did not include nigiri into Miyabi offer. We did not offer sushi. Later, under the weight of demand I had no option but learn sushi and Miyabi started to offer nigiri. And within some time onigiri disappeared from our menu unnoticed. But I did not give up onigiri and promoted onigiri in Miyabi at least for outside events booth selling. Manager and chefs in Miyabi disagreed and discouraged me saying nobody knows onigiri. Nobody will buy onigiri. But I believed in onigiri. Miyabi was a pioneer in promoting onigiri in Czech. We have been offering them at events for more than five years. And now? It’s great that many people love onigiri these days. What’s more, many of them have good knowledge about onigiri and distinguish between onigiri and nigiri. They know the good reason why onigiri were the first and why nigiri are second.

I am very glad that the onigiri are gaining their popularity in our regions. For me, it is a beautiful proof that Japanese culture is increasingly known and admired in the Czech Republic. And to contribute to this situation of spreading the beauties of Japanese culture, we will do the onigiri festival for you at Miyabi. On Sunday, September 27, we will have both classic and highly creative onigiri on our offer. Come and enjoy. We will put a bowl of cooked rice in front of you so that you can grasp and shape a nice onigiri ball yourself.

Onigiri, you deserve admiration and respect!

Yours, Miyabi Darja

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