Meanwhile, at a Tokyo 7-Eleven, someone right now is choosing from a variety of bento boxes and rice bowls, delivered that morning and featuring grilled fish, sushi, mapo tofu, tonkatsu, and a dozen other choices. The lunch philosophy at Japanese 7-Eleven? Actual food.
On the day we missed out on fresh soba, Iris had a tonkatsu bento, and I chose a couple
of rice balls (onigiri), one filled with pickled plum and the other with spicy fish roe. For $1.50, convenience store onigiri encapsulate everything that is great about Japanese food and packaging. Let's start in the middle and work outward, like were building an onion. The core of an onigiri features a flavorful and usually salty filling. This could be an umeboshi (pickled apricot, but usually translated as pickled plum), as sour as a Sour Patch Kid; flaked salmon; or cod or mullet roe.
Next is the rice, packed lightly by machine into a perfect triangle. Japanese rice is unusual among staple rices in Asia because it's good at room temperature or a little colder. Sushi or onigiri made with long-grain rice would be a chalky, crumbly disaster. Oishinbo argues that Japan is the only country in Asia that makes rice balls because of the unique properties of Japanese rice. I doubt this. Medium- and short-grain rices are also popular in parts of southern China, and presumably wherever those rices exist, people squish them into a ball to eat later, kind of like I used to do with a fistful of crustless white bread. (Come on, I can't be the only one.)
Next comes a layer of cellophane, followed by a layer of nori and another layer of cellophane. The nori is preserved in a transparent shell for the same reason Han Solo was encased in carbonite: to ensure that he would remain crispy until just before eating. (At least, I assume that's what Jabba the Hutt had in mind.) You pull a red strip on the onigiri packaging, both layers of cellophane part, and a ready-to-eat rice ball tumbles into your hand, encased in crispy seaweed.
Not everybody finds the convenience store onigiri packaging to be a triumph. "The seaweed isn't just supposed to be crunchy," says Futaki in Oishinbo: The Joy of Rice. "It tastes best when the seaweed gets moist and comes together as one with the rice." Yamaoka agrees. Jerk. Luckily, you'll find a few moist-nori rice balls right next to the crispy ones.