There’s a Lot More to Musubi Than Just Spam

Though most Americans have long thought of musubi as just a vehicle for Spam, the many other versions of these compact rice snacks are finally reaching the US.

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Apr 1 2015, 4:30pm

Photo via Flickr user briandtam

If snacking like a samurai has always been a secret desire of yours, consider the humble musubi.

You're probably most familiar with the Spam version, which is one of Hawaii's quirkiest and best-known food traditions. It's a simple snack: a slice of the infamous grilled meat is attached to a block of sushi rice with a strip of nori. But in Hawaii, it's everywhere—and has been for a long time.

Spam became a widely consumed food in Hawaii during World War II, when meat was tightly rationed among soldiers and civilians alike. After the war, it remained such an integral part of the local diet that Hawaii continues to eat the most Spam per capita in the United States, plowing through 7 million cans per year. Sliced Spam on musubi became an easy and convenient way to enjoy the tinned meat, under the influence of Hawaii's large Japanese population (which is currently almost 17 percent, and has been as high as 43 percent in the early 20th century).

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Spam musubi can even be found in convenience stores in Hawaii. Photo via Flickr user Michael Lusk

The Japanese were aware of the portability and practicality of musubi long before Hawaii caught wind. Also known as onigiri, this traditional Japanese snack dates back thousands of years, and was eaten as a quick lunch by warriors on the battlefield. One particularly far-back example of onigiri-eating is The Diary of Lady Murasaki, written by an 11th-century Japanese woman, which describes rice balls at a picnic.

In contemporary society, climbers munch on musubi while conquering Mount Fuji, and students bring them on school field trips. They have even been served as mid-flight snacks on Japanese airlines. A common product in grocery stores throughout the country, musubi was distributed after the devastating 2011 earthquake as an easy way to provide nourishment to survivors in need.

A few key ingredients can be expected to be seen in a musubi. Steamed, short-grain white rice usually plays a starring role, but brown rice (genmai) sometimes makes an appearance, and even fried rice has an occasional guest spot. The rice is formed into either a ball, triangle or rectangle, with a surprise for the tongue tucked into the middle, like pickled plum (umeboshi), shiitake mushrooms, tofu puffs, or salted-salmon.

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Different types of onigiri with furikake. Photo via Flickr user 5thluna

How musubi is made and what you will find in it depends on a couple of variables. Each of Japan's 47 prefectures has a favorite filling, but some of the country's most beloved as a whole are salmon, tuna with mayonnaise, and kombu (dried kelp).

Musubi can be wrapped with a thin sheet of dried seaweed (nori), covered with salted shiso leaves, or a very thin omelet called usuyaki tamago, which is like an egg crepe. It can even be served virtually naked with just a sprinkling of white or black sesame seeds. To shake things up, the rice in a musubi is sometimes mixed with fresh green peas or furikake, a common seasoning made of dried fish, chopped seaweed, sesame seeds and MSG.

Minimalist musubi is a simple rice ball with no filling and no wrap—just kissed with a touch of salt. Called shio-musubi (translating as "salty rice balls" ) it's best for a special type of new-harvest rice called shinmai. Devoid of competition from any other ingredients, the unique flavor of the fresh rice is allowed to shine. Because it's only available in the fall, shio-musubi is considerably more expensive to make than its counterparts and is not as popular as other varieties.

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Shiso Umemusubi from Sunny Blue. Photo by the author

Spam musubi, in particular, has enjoyed a cult-like following in recent years, especially in Los Angeles. Chef Roy Choi—who founded the insanely popular Kogi food truck fleet, as well as several other Los Angeles-based eateries—is known to be a big fan, incorporating meat musubi into several of his dishes. But other musubi hawkers are sprouting up all over LA, with pop-up restaurants, food trucks (such as Mama Musubi, which offers versions with barbecue pork, spicy tuna, miso chicken, truffle tuna, and pork belly with daikon), and stores singularly devoted to the food.

Named after the idyllic village in Japan where the legendary Yuki Hotaka rice brand is grown, Kawaba Rice Ball offers musubi with pickled boiled egg, enoki mushroom, tuna with spicy mayo, fried shrimp, and chicken curry. But there are less conventional ingredients with local influence, too: drawing upon the flavors of California for inspiration, the vegetarian jalapeño miso musubi is a favorite menu item.

Sunny Blue is a fast-casual restaurant (hard emphasis on casual), "blink and you'll miss it" hole-in-the-wall that makes made-to-order musubi with warm rice, crisp nori, and fillings like kara tuna and spicy cod roe (mentaiko)—plus, they serve free barley iced tea.

I recently ventured to their flagship store in Santa Monica for my own musubi fix. Hoping to beat the crowds, I got there right when they opened, but people quickly began piling in and we struggled to squeeze in the store.

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Musubi from Sunny Blue. Photo by the author

I ordered five of their different offerings, and the cashier asked with concern, "Are you going to eat [these] within 20 minutes?" After some probing of my own, I learned that the nori selected for the musubi varies depending on the answer to this question. One is drier, and comes in a sleeve of plastic. The other is crispier, fresher and simply served on the side of musubi that's intended to be eaten within a short period of time.

Eating musubi that's been prepared for take-out feels like unwrapping Christmas gifts. At Sunny Blue, each musubi is specially packaged to keep the nori and rice separated so that the seaweed could remain crispy. I first dove into the hijiki (a brown sea vegetable) with tofu, and then the Shiso Umemusubi, a popular onigiri flavor combination which contrasts the sharp, vinegary taste of ume (pickled plum) with the light, mint-like flavor of shiso.

Other flavors included the Miso Mushroom (which was a bit cloyingly sweet) and the Eggplant Chili Miso, which was spicy and robust. Last was the Wasabi Tsukudani, which combines the traditional Japanese horseradish with tsukudani, shredded seaweed marinated in soy sauce and other seasoning. Finally, some musubi with a kick.

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Musubi from Sunny Blue. Photo by the author

The influx of musubi eateries hasn't been limited to the Los Angeles area, with other rice ball-centered restaurants opening in San Francisco (Onigilly), London (Mr. Musubi), and even Australia (Onigiri Café Omu). In a sandwich- and burrito-saturated consumer market, musubi could be the next big convenience food.

After all, if it was good enough for samurais, it's good enough for us.