Sunday, April 10, 2011

Nothing To Fear -- Onigiri (お握り)


Metropolis, dir. Fritz Lang (1927)

        Riding up from Paoli to Manhattan on Amtrak Thursday morning, filled with more fear, fatigue and nervousness than optimism, I several times reflected on the one sure good thing awaiting me in New York: Onigiri (お握り) at Menchanko-Tei.

        For years I worked near this restaurant, which is on West 55th Street, between 5th and 6th *Avenues, and I have enjoyed countless solitary, mind-clearing  onigiri lunches there.  (Incidentally, this is a block I could probably navigate blind or blindfolded, so much of my life has unfolded there.) 

British Light Infantry and Light Dragoons Attacking the Pennsylvania camp, 20th September, 1777 (Paoli Massacre) by Saviero Xavier Della Gatta, 1782

        Frankly, I would have preferred to have had company a lot of the time, but I never had much success luring people to sample either onigiri or the restaurant’s trademark ramen-based soups.  My crowd of working New Yorkers gravitated instead toward generally more expensive and luxurious sushi emporia, which was their loss because entering Menchanko-Tei is like taking a step into Japan, from the day’s beginning and the restaurant’s early morning  breakfast until late in the evening, which brings different  offerings than the lunch bill of fare.  A sojourn at Menchanko-Tei is budget exotic travel with no put-on airs and no jet-lag.  It’s a place where you can definitely leave your home-based troubles outside the door and I’ve never felt anything but bliss and clear thoughts ensconced in those two long, simple rooms.


        Onigiri, for the uninitiated, translates as “rice balls”.  Traditionally, they take the form of large triangular pillows of plain rice that are loosely wrapped in nori seaweed and contain in their centers (like buried treasure)  small quantities of highly flavorful seasoned fish like salted salmon (sake)() or marinated pollock roe (mentaiko)(明太子) or pickled vegetables like plum (umeboshi)(梅干) or radish (daikon)(ダイコン). Onigiri rice, unlike sushi rice, is unsweetened and unvinegared, although it is also sticky and sometimes salted, the salt acting as a preservative in the same way sushi rice seasonings do. 

Pickled umeboshi

        Onigiri accompaniments and condiments include other pickled vegetables (oshinko), a Japanese dried spiced pepper mixture, or Japanese mustard or chili sauces.  If you choose to add any of these to your onigiri, you must do so in fairly minute quantities in order to achieve a logical and appealing balance and to avoid overpowering the basic flavor of the onigiri and your enjoyment of its light but hefty (a contradiction in terms though that might seem) texture.


        Onigiri traditions are ancient and long pre-date even Lady Murasaki’s (the author of The Tale of Genji) account of them in her 11th century diary, Murasaki Shikibu Nikki, where she describes serving rice balls (called tonjiki then) at picnics.

Lady Murasaki by Tosa Mitsuoki, 17th century

        By the 17th century, samurai warriors are recorded storing rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaves for quick wartime lunches, and over the centuries (culminating with the advent of the widespread availability of nori during the Genroku period beginning in 1688) onigiri acquired its current status in Japan as a ubiquitous, delicious quick meal.

        It was long believed, however, that onigiri could never be mass-produced because the hand-rolling technique used to form the triangular pillows was too difficult for machine replication.  However, by the 1980s the country that invented the commercial rice cooker in 1945 solved that problem and machine-made onigiri began appearing on store shelves. (The linked Youtube video is well worth watching.)

Commercial onigiri making machine 

         At Menchanko-Tei, however, fabrication of onigiri is strictly “old school” and my lunches usually consist of two onigiri (usually one mentaiko and one umeboshi) a bowl of their excellent miso soup, a green salad, an extra order of pickles and green tea.   It is superb, extremely inexpensive and completely satisfying.  (Menchanko –Tei’s ramen and other noodle soups, the house specialities, are excellent and the dishes the crowd seems to prefer, but they are far too filling for me.)

Hakata-ramen at Menchanko-Tei 

    Often the only non-Japanese person attending Menchanko-Tei’s constant throng, I wonder: 

1.  How do the Japanese stay so thin when they seem to eat so much?; 


2.  Why am I the only person I ever see ordering onigiri and assembling my particular menu?  (Am I weird or doing something wrong?)   

        The first question, I think, will remain forever shrouded in mystery.

Ray Milland and Carl Esmond in Ministry of Fear, dir. Fritz Lang (1944)

        As for the second, I am untroubled and the restaurant has never questioned my choices or my judgement.

        On Thursday, though, I did wonder about the two new 7.1 magnitude earthquakes (considered aftershocks) in Japan, the mini- tsunamis that followed,  and how the restaurant’s staff and customers were feeling both about last month’s devastation and what lies ahead for Japan in the wake of such destruction.

        I myself was also seriously disconcerted by the cover photos appearing on the New York Daily News and the New York Post showing President Obama embracing the “Reverend” Al Sharpton at a political event in New York to garner 2012  re-election support.  Having lived through the vicious and destructive Tawana Brawley hoax years ago that destroyed innocent persons' lives and which all sane observers, liberal and conservative, agreed permanently scarred New York City and branded as maggots its protagonists (the former lawyers, Alton Maddox (permanently suspended from law practice) and C. Vernon Mason (disbarred), the criminal, fraud and clown Sharpton, and the feckless but vile Miss Brawley herself), I found the photograph sickening and impossible to see as anything other than a nightmare image of the decline in public decency and morality.

         Years ago, while the Brawley hoax was still fresh in people’s minds, I met in court (we were on opposite sides of a civil case involving a prisoner incarcerated in Westchester County Jail)  a famous black civil rights attorney named Conrad Lynn, who told me that as a participant in some of the major 20th century battles to establish racial equality in America, he found the actions of (then) fellow attorneys Maddox and Mason, and the beyond-the-pale disgraceful Sharpton reprehensible and shameful.  (He referred to them simply as The Three Stooges).  And now this.

Original Pennsylvania Station designed by McKim, Mead and White (1910-1963)

Ruins of the original Pennsylvania Station designed by McKim, Mead and White (1910-1963), RIP

         Lunch at Menchanko-Tei, following a shoeshine  at Andrade’s (ahead of an important meeting later in the afternoon) erased, or at least put a decent distance, between me and the unhappy, unhealthy-looking subway wraiths I encountered on the way uptown from Penn Station.  I had never seen such a grim, enervated group of people and you would need to be a Subway Saint, I think, to feel anything except a desire to escape into your imagination during the ride (a bad idea; better to pay steely attention) and into anywhere outside the city for a long while afterward.   

        As a teenager I loved the subway.  Something has happened since then, however. 

        The subway and city have both changed and so have I

        I look at those people and wonder how on earth they can sleep at night in that city.  

        I can’t even sleep in sleepy suburban Pennsylvania.

        My afternoon meeting went very well, by the way.   A colleague and I went to an uptown hotel to discuss with an actor and director their highly unusual, extremely marketable film project, which was one of surpassing interest.  The actor was quite well-known and had once been a featured player in a very successful television series I liked quite a bit and watched regularly.  He told great stories and their movie was excellent and well worth my late arrival home on the Paoli Local in the middle of the Main Line night. 

        I’m still wondering about the fear, however, and what to do about it?

John Cale, Fear (1974)

Reader Note:  *Speaking of 6th Avenue, you can always spot non-New Yorkers, Stalag 17-style (i.e., the scene where William Holden reveals that Peter Graves is a Nazi spy by showing  his ignorance of American baseball statistics) if they refer to it as “Avenue of the Americas”.  I remember reading one of Leslie Charteris's Saint novels (it may have been The Saint In New York), which contained a description of Fiorello LaGuardia's unconvincing attempt in the early 1940s to dress up the then-shabby, unprestigious avenue, by giving it a fancy name.  Decades (and a much fancier avenue) later, the name is still unconvincing and largely unused.  It’s strictly 6th Avenue, which is fine with me and more obviously consistent with New York City’s basic street and avenue ordination system.)


  1. Please may I provide company the next time you go?

    News: We are planning to give up our suburban home and move back to New York. Naturally, our apartment (two-bedroom in a 19-unit Soho co-op -- no contract signed yet) will be on ... 6th Avenue.

  2. Yes, definitely, and congratulations. (And good luck completing the details and closing.) That's great. I think that would be a very good place to live. It's the area I would probably think about if we ever returned. Curtis

  3. Unbelievable post, Curtis.

    All one can say is, one sure thing should never be taken for granted.


  4. Thank you Tom. That's very kind of you to say and it means a lot to me. Curtis