Walk into any Japanese convenience store or supermarket, and you’ll find a row of rice balls waiting. You can always count on the old standards, such as salmon, pickled plum, and spicy cod roe being represented, but each store also sets aside a bit of shelf space for unique, limited-time versions as well.
In the past, this form of carbohydrate-packed one-upmanship has given us such wonders as the bacon cheeseburger musubi and headscratchers as the fish butt onigiri (musubi being one of the Japanese words for “rice ball,” and onigiri the other). It’s always a flip of the culinary coin whether these outside-the-box rice balls are going to be a hit or a miss, but when we heard about ramen-style onigiri, we were immediately onboard.
Although you won’t spot too many NewDays locations walking around the streets of Tokyo, you’ll find plenty of them inside and attached to train stations. That’s because the convenience store chain is owned and operated by rail company JR East, and you can generally find a branch in most mid-sized JR stations in eastern Japan, and often multiple stores in the larger rail hubs.
Onigiri are especially big sellers at NewDays, as the compact, handheld morsels are great for when you’ve got a rumbling in your stomach but are smack dab in the middle of trying to get from Point A to Point B. Right now, NewDays is offering three special kinds of rice balls, all with some sort of connection to Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido.
Pictured at the bottom left and bottom right of our triangle of rice balls are NewDays’ miso ramen-style onigiri (in red) and soy broth ramen-style onigiri (in blue), priced at 153 and 160 yen (US$1.22 and $1.28), respectively. Both were created under the guidance of popular Sapporo ramen restaurant Sumire.
NewDays’ third Hokkaido-themed rice ball, seen at the top of the above photo, is the 150-yen soup curry-style rice ball. The thin curry is another specialty of Sapporo, and providing assistance this time is Magic Spice, a well-known soup curry restaurant in Hokkaido’s largest city.
We decided to start off with the soup curry onigiri, which thankfully isn’t as soggy as the name might make you fear. The mixture of steamed chicken and keema curry is nice and moist, though, and when you bite into a mouthful of it along with the turmeric rice, it’s about the highest quality rice ball with curry that you’ll find.
Next up we tried the soy broth ramen onigiri. As you can see, there aren’t any actual noodles here, but there is a nice cut of chashu, the sliced pork that commonly tops a bowl of ramen. The rice itself is prepared in the takkikomi gohan style, seasoned with ramen broth as it’s steamed, and it’s not too far off from its inspiration.
Finally, it was time for the miso ramen rice ball. Once again, the rice is seasoned with miso while cooking. It’s actually got a pleasing spiciness to it, and the nori seaweed wrapping and bits of miso covered meat inside add even more flavor.
So in the end, NewDays’ went three for three with its Hokkaido-themed onigiri. Granted, there’s no actual soup or noodles to be found in these soup curry and ramen-style rice balls, but if you’re after a snack and not a linguistics lesson, you can’t go wrong with any of the trio.
[ Read in Japanese ]