Making onigiri is an intimate act
I stood in Kuniko’s pantry and pulled a jar of umeboshi from the shelf. I removed a dozen or so from the jar and began prying the soft flesh away from the pits. I popped one in my mouth. It was mouth-puckering sour though pleasant, the saltiness pronounced but tolerable. The rice cooker clicked off and I let it rest for a few minutes. As I opened it and fluffed the rice Kuniko walked in with a white cloth. She spread it on the table and prepared a small bowl of cool water. She retrieved a container of salt and set it on the cloth by the water. She fluffed the rice a bit more, releasing a few last plumes of steam. She dipped her hands in water, then spread a pinch of salt on her palms and took a mound of rice in her left hand. With her right thumb she pressed an indentation into the center and added a scant bit of umeboshi. She topped it with another clump of rice and began pressing. She pressed and turned, pressed and turned, soon turning out a perfect triangle shaped onigiri.
Making onigiri is an intimate act and homemade ones, laced with love, taste the best. Watching the practiced movement of Kuniko’s hands I was reminded of a day some years prior. On the third floor of the Red Cross Hospital, Hanako, her siblings, and I joined Kuniko at a round table in a sunny alcove. In between visits to physical therapy and speech therapy sessions, bathing appointments, naps, and doctor’s visits, we spent hours there eating meals, playing games, telling stories, just being together. When Kuniko first woke from her coma no one knew if she could speak, if she could move, and perhaps most prominently on everyone’s mind, if she could eat. She had been out of the ICU for some time, had full mobility and was gaining strength, but was by no means well. Zannen, she said. It wasn’t the first time she had voiced disappointment and regret at surviving the stroke. That she should live only to be dependent on others, to have to relearn how to use her own mind and body, it weighed on her heavily. An aid brought her meal and we all sat together, she with her tray of cafeteria food and we with things brought from home. She was on a soft, plain food diet and it suited her. She had lost her zest for generously salted foods and for sweet candies and found strong tastes overwhelming. Jouhin, she said. She found the flavors unassuming and elegant. She liked the hospital chef.As we sat together drinking tea a nurse came by as she did every day. She crouched beside Kuniko and asked, “What is your name?” That much she knew. “What is today’s date?” Kuniko had prepared for this moment as she did every day. She had looked at the calendar, figured out the date, and repeated it over and over. She wrung her hands and thought for a long time. We all watched closely. She looked at the nurse and shook her head slowly. The nurse made a note on her pad and left. Kuniko turned back to us and sighed, zannen. We sat with her quietly for a long while. She tried to speak, forcing her mouth to express the thoughts so clear in her mind. Sometimes I think I’ll end it, I’ll just stop eating, but then… gesturing to her empty tray her face lit up with a smile and she started to laugh.
Kuniko’s appetite for food betrayed an appetite for life that her family clung to. Each day they brought her new things to eat. Hanako pulled out a pear and a knife. She set them on a paper towel in front of her mother. “Will you peel it and slice it up for us?” she asked. Kuniko picked up the knife in her right hand, the pear in her left. “How?” she asked. But without waiting for a reply, her hand guided the blade down the pointed end of the pear towards the belly. As we stood together in her kitchen, I watched her hands make one onigiri after another. For every three or four tight triangles she made, I managed a novice one. As she spooned umeboshi onto the rice in her palm she said, “I’ve forgotten how much to use.” But as she pressed and flipped, pressed and flipped, it was clear that her hands remembered.