|A colorful take on the traditional bento for school-children, with rice balls depicting pink piggy characters hued with distilled vinegar and dried plum. [Image: Bento Zen]|
Beginning last month, Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF) organized and conducted a series of nine workshops in California and Oregon designed to instruct children and parents on how to make ‘rice ball characters.’
Rice balls (onigiri) are a classic Japanese food item made by wrapping a sheet of seaweed (nori) around white rice that is triangularly or cylindrically compressed. Rice balls also often have various salty or sour ingredient fillings, such as broiled salmon. Regularly sold at Asian convenience stores, rice balls are popular because they can serve as quick, on-the-go meals that can be eaten by hand.
MAFF sought to introduce and popularize this convenient dish among American children in these shoku-iku (food education) workshops. Children and parents were taught the basics of creating the dish, and workshop leaders added to the fun by encouraging participants to decorate their rice balls to form the faces of cute characters — a trend that has become increasingly popular in Japan’s youth culture.
The first of these free-to-attend events was held on March 4, at the Williams-Sonoma store in Beverly Hills. All nine of the workshops accommodated around 20 children and 16 guardians and were instructed by chefs and food writers such as Chef Andy Matsuda, founder of the Sushi Chef Institute in Torrance, and Debra Samuels, author of My Japanese Table.
These workshops are part of MAFF’s enduring campaign to inform people about Japanese food culture and enhance public engagement. In 2015, MAFF conducted a worldwide tour for its "Anyone Can Make Sushi" event, educating and encouraging people to make and eat Japanese sushi. Non-profit organizations such as Table for Two have also embraced rice balls as a symbol of health and goodwill: charity programs such as "Change the World with Onigiri” combat obesity and hunger by using social media to provide meals to African schoolchildren, and arranging healthier supplements to school meals in low-income American neighborhoods.
These initiatives come in conjunction with burgeoning trade and investment between Japan and both California and Oregon. Japanese and Asian food sales in the U.S. have grown substantially, outpacing the growth of other foreign food markets at a cumulative increase of 135% growth since 1999. Cultivating relations through food workshops is a mainstay of sustained bilateral development: in California, nearly 130,000 jobs are supported through exports to Japan, with Japanese students and tourists contributing a total of $2.17 billion to the state economy. In Oregon, 12,000 jobs are supported by exports, with a total of $143 million contributed to the state economy by Japanese students and tourists.
David Lee is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a Master's Candidate of the Asian Studies program at Georgetown University.