Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Executions in Japan are surrounded by a veil of secrecy so I haven’t found any data regarding what the Japanese death row inmates ask for their last meal. Still, I’d be willing to bet a significant amount that the food appearing in most of these meals will be Japan’s ultimate fast and soul food combination, onigiri (お握り/おにぎり): a ball, or most often, a triangle made of rice, containing pieces of fish (most often, salmon or skipjack tuna), roe, sour umeboshi (梅干し) plum or pretty much anything else, usually served wrapped in big pieces of nori seaweed and available in all food stores anywhere in Japan and in big quantities; especially konbini have in their freezers a special “onigiri” section containing at least ten different variations.
Once again, and not only in food-related matters, the defining factor is practicality: forming the rice in one-handful portions and spicing it either with salt or with small pieces of any food available, the Japanese came up with the easiest, simplest and fastest meal; it’s not surprising that there are explicit references from the 10th century or that there are many who believe that onigiri’s history goes back to the time rice became part of the life in the Japanese islands. This same simplicity guarantees that this odd sandwich (one could also call it that) has a certain path going directly to all Japanese’s sentimental core: being the most common (and the healthiest) snack for field trips and picnics, most people have connected it to their childhood.
Sentimentality aside, similar reasons make the adoption of onigiri easy even by foreigners who are only in Japan as tourists or casual visitors and often with a limited amount of time in their hands. Certainly the decryption of the characters in the packaging needs some getting used to but the low cost allows for experimentation and especially without the disheartening attempt in communication with some waiter; in other words, it is the Japanese dish most immediately available to anyone. (Incidentally, when it is bought at a super market or a konbini, the immediacy is somewhat limited by the peculiar packaging keeping the nori from coming in contact with the rice and losing its crispness but after the first 2-3 everybody understands the right way to open it –this is Japan so of course there is only one right way.) The only real problem is that of image: blinded by sushi, ramen or Kobe beef, many overlook the humble little triangles thus missing a unique opportunity to relate to Japan’e deepest part; besides, another word for onigiri is “omusubi” (お結び/おむすび) which literally translates as “knot” or “join”.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.