February 7, 2023

Lunch at Onigiri Bongo contains inexperienced mustard and salmon onigiri, miso soup, pickles and inexperienced tea.

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Lunch at Onigiri Bongo contains inexperienced mustard and salmon onigiri, miso soup, pickles and inexperienced tea.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

TOKYO — The world’s nice cuisines delight the attention and palate. Or, conversely, they will rejoice the straightforward and exalt the common-or-garden—for instance, by recreating do-it-yourself consolation meals in a restaurant setting.

A well-liked and compact eatery in Tokyo’s Toshima district known as Onigiri Bongo does simply that. For about 60 years, probably the most modest dishes in Japan has been served right here – onigiri, or rice balls.

Diners on the Onigiri Bongo, named after a drum whose sound resonates far and large just like the restaurant’s status, are squeezed 9 seats round an L-shaped bar. Its tiny area and its status as one of many metropolis’s best onigiri outlets creates strains of buyers down the road ready for 3 to 4 hours or extra.

Onigiri Bongo proprietor Yumiko Ukon (foreground) cooks rice balls at her common Tokyo restaurant. Ordering from the chef behind the counter is just like what number of sushi eating places function.

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Onigiri Bongo proprietor Yumiko Ukon (foreground) cooks rice balls at her common Tokyo restaurant. Ordering from the chef behind the counter is just like what number of sushi eating places function.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

In entrance of a line of individuals lining the block ready for the nine-seat Onigiri Bongo restaurant to open at 11:30.

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In entrance of a line of individuals lining the block ready for the nine-seat Onigiri Bongo restaurant to open at 11:30.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

Behind the counter sits the wiry and energetic proprietor of the restaurant, 70-year-old Yumiko Ukon. She scoops rice from an enormous pot, arranges it into triangular tins, and fills it with over 50 totally different toppings, together with commonplace ones like mackerel or salmon, pickled plum, mustard greens and cod roe, and novelties like pork and kimchi and fried rooster with mayonnaise and soy sauce.

Then she places extra rice on prime and deftly shapes it with the final three presses. She wraps every rice ball in a skinny sheet of seaweed and serves it to prospects on the counter. The restaurant serves between 1200 and 1500 onigiri day by day.

Onigiri Bongo proprietor Yumiko Ukon stands in entrance of the wall and lists over 50 toppings that diners can order for his or her rice balls.

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Onigiri Bongo proprietor Yumiko Ukon stands in entrance of the wall and lists over 50 toppings that diners can order for his or her rice balls.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

The Japanese have been consuming onigiri for two,000 years.

Onigiri are typically born from the stays of household rice pots and are sometimes packed into faculty and journey lunch containers, in addition to mountain climbing and picnic baggage. Packaged industrial variations of onigiri are on retailer cabinets all through Japan.

Archaeological proof from Japan’s Yayoi interval (roughly 300 BC to 250 AD) appears to recommend that the Japanese have been consuming styles of onigiri for over 2,000 years. Rice balls are identified by totally different names, relying on the period and area. The phrase onigiri itself comes from the Japanese phrase “nigiru,” to compress, referring to how a rice ball is formed by hand.

Onigiri Bongo proprietor Yumiko Ukon wraps triangular rice balls in skinny sheets of nori or dried seaweed behind the counter at her restaurant.

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Onigiri Bongo proprietor Yumiko Ukon wraps triangular rice balls in skinny sheets of nori or dried seaweed behind the counter at her restaurant.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

The principle components of Bongo Onigiri come from all around the nation, together with short-grain Koshihikari rice from the terraced rice fields of Ukon’s native Niigata Prefecture, seaweed from Japan’s Ariake Sea, and salt from Okinawa.

For the present proprietor, the restaurant has develop into “love at first sight”.

Onigiri Bongo restaurant workers put together components for rice balls earlier than lunch.

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Onigiri Bongo restaurant workers put together components for rice balls earlier than lunch.

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In Onigiri Bongo, rice balls develop into fluffy and crumbly when gently pressed by Ukon. The onigiri are massive, the rice is a bit al dente, and the style is easy, genuine, and scrumptious. Rice balls are sometimes served in a set that features pickles and miso soup. A weekday meal set with two onigiri and tofu soup prices 800 yen, about $5.98 – a really inexpensive lunch in Tokyo.

However what makes onigiri particular to the Yukon will not be the small print of preparation, however their which means and the way in which individuals affiliate them.

“It isn’t about know-how. It is about how a lot feeling you may put into every onigiri. That’s why I’ll always remember my mom’s onigiri for the remainder of my life,” she says.

“It was a part of our tradition to not purchase them, however to make them at dwelling,” she recollects.

After she moved to Tokyo on the age of about 20, “Onigiri has at all times been in my completely satisfied reminiscences, like sports activities festivals or faculty journeys,” says Yukon. “My finest reminiscences of onigiri are these of my mom once I returned dwelling from Tokyo.”

Onigiri Bongo’s wall options the restaurant’s authentic proprietor Tasuku Ukon (again row left) and his spouse, present restaurant proprietor Yumiko Ukon, in entrance of him.

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Onigiri Bongo’s wall options the restaurant’s authentic proprietor Tasuku Ukon (again row left) and his spouse, present restaurant proprietor Yumiko Ukon, in entrance of him.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

Having simply arrived within the capital, she says she felt like a “meals refugee” as a result of she “could not discover meals that I favored,” she recollects. “However a good friend launched me to a scrumptious rice ball restaurant and it was love at first sight.”

Ukon was not destined to be simply one other buyer. She married a restaurant proprietor, Tasuku Ukon, who was 27 years older than her. After he handed away in 2012, she took his place.

Now, after over 40 years within the restaurant, she continues to serve onigiri with vitality and keenness.

“I used to be fascinated by retiring at 70,” she says, “however I am nonetheless in good well being and I wish to see the smiling faces of individuals consuming rice balls.”

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report in Tokyo.

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