Star-Bulletin Features

Grant Kagimoto of Cane Haul Road carved a model of his "Fly Rice" design, one of many musubi themes he's used on T-shirts. Others include "Club Musubi," at right.

The musubi mystique

The mundane musubi gets
dressed up for TEMARI's
23rd birthday celebration

By Betty Shimabukuro

Life is complicated. Full of perils, potential wrong turns, deceit. And then you have the musubi: simple, clean, a reminder of days at the beach. Black and white (and red in the center, if you opt for ume). Noncontroversial.

"For a lot of people, a musubi is a picnic or party food, so the memories that go with it are positive," says Grant Kagimoto, designer for Cane Haul Road and one of the first to recognize the musubi as a cultural icon. "It's an emotional kind of thing, happy."

Next week, the Center for Asian and Pacific Arts -- better known as TEMARI, a nonprofit organization that promotes traditional crafts -- pays tribute to both Kagimoto and the musubi at its 23rd birthday party, a fund-raiser featuring a silent auction and art marketplace.

Tanabe's musubis include, clockwise from top, purple chiso, sushi rice, furikake, pickled cucumber and salmon. They sell for $1.10 to $1.25 each.

The centerpiece of it all is a roast of Kagimoto, and the theme is "Club Musubi," for Kagimoto's T-shirt design that assigned personality to the rice ball.

The featured food will be "gourmet musubi," which seems a contradiction in terms. Take something plain and pure, why don't you, and fancy it up.

"Everybody's playing with food nowadays," says David Ariyoshi of A Catered Experience and architect of the musubi mutations for the TEMARI party. "There's no more, 'Lasagna is only made a certain way because my grandmother made it that way.' ... It makes it fun and exciting."

And so he will serve musubi stuffed with ahi poke, topped with Mongolian barbecued beef, crowned with sliced octopus and paired with mochiko chicken. Only one is designed in the traditional triangle; the others resemble the rectangle of Spam musubi, which itself resembles nigiri sushi, the bite-sized, hand-formed staple of the sushi platter. The favorite: a nigiri-style musubi topped with a slice of salmon that has been caramelized with brown sugar.

Ariyoshi considered other variations -- a musubi made of Thai sticky rice with chicken curry, a "yin-yang" musubi made of jasmine and black mochi rice -- but had to reject them as too labor-intensive. The thought process, though, proved the possibilities. "It's pretty much endless," he says.

But before we go too far with this, let us remember that no matter how much we consider the musubi to be our own, to mess with as we please, it did come to us from Japan.

David Ariyoshi, sous chef for A Catered Experience, took a bite of his ahi poke musubi to show the fish inside.

Chef Shuji Abe of Furusato Japanese Restaurant says the rice ball goes by two names in Japan: omusubi and onigiri (the "o" being an honorific added for politeness). Onigiri is the more common usage these days.

Abe says triangular and circular shapes are more common to the Tokyo area; rectangles to the Kyoto-Osaka area. (A lot of Hawaii people say round rice balls were traditional for funerals, but Abe doesn't know that to be true.)

Musubi motherlode

At Tanabe's Superette on Keeaumoku Street, each day begins at 5:30 a.m. with 300 musubis. "All the good ones are gone by 1:30," says owner Henry Tanabe.

Tanabe has come up with at least 15 types of musubi, all of them named. The "Akebono" is flavored only with furikake ("clean-cut and fresh," just like the sumo wrestler, Tanabe says). The "Musashi" is brown, flavored with bonito flakes and soy sauce ("nice brown, tan, just like Musashimaru").

"I started out with the sumotori," he says, "then I got into other Japanese names." "Shogun" is the top seller -- Spam, ume and furikake, wrapped in a half-sheet of nori. "It's very impressive."

The original musubi was naked, by the way -- no nori wrap. Miso, soy sauce or salt was used to preserve the rice, or it might be grilled (yaki-musubi, still sold even in Hawaii). Abe says it was for Hina Matsuri -- Girl's Day -- that the sheet of dried seaweed was added, possibly because it could be arranged to make a triangle of rice resemble the hina doll of the traditional holiday display.

Also worth noting: In the "very old days," Abe says, white rice was very expensive, so onigiri was a luxury of the affluent. Interesting that it has grown into the picnic food of the masses.

As an artist, Kagimoto says, the musubi appealed as a design concept. "Simple shape, black and white. It worked on a number of levels."

His first musubi design back in the '70s was called "Ume Surprise," a canvas bag with musubi on the outside that opened up to show an ume (red pickled plum) inside.

The genesis: "I never liked ume, so when my mother made musubi she always made a certain number without ume. The joke among my brothers and sisters was, 'Look out for the ume surprise!' Because once you bite into the musubi, you're committed."

Next came "Musubi and Friends," a line of musubi with rabbit ears (it was Eastertime, he says). Then came "Club Musubi," which had "more resonance," Kagimoto says, and really took off as a T-shirt design. It was a line of seven musubis, each with a different personality, only one a rabbit. Each wore its nori wrap as clothing, with additional accessories to provide character. One wore a tuxedo vest, another was topped with Mickey Mouse ears, another had a beanie.

"Club Musubi" solidified Cane Haul Road's business success and led to many more designs -- for example, "O Musubi O Musubi," with musubi as Christmas tree, topped with an ume-red star.

HERE IS Ariyoshi's recipe for the musubi he says is the staff favorite:

Caramelized salmon musubi

Mochiko chicken musubi

Mongolian barbecued beef musubi

Caramelized King Salmon Musubi

2 pounds salmon
5 cups rice
4 sheets nori, in 1-inch strips
>> Marinade:
1 cup soy sauce
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 cup mirin
>> Glaze:
1 tablespoon butter, softened
3 tablespoons brown sugar

Slice salmon into rectangles about 1-1/2 by 2-1/2 inches, 1/3-inch thick. Combine marinade ingredients and marinade salmon 4 hours.

Combine glaze ingredients and brush over salmon slices. Broil until caramelized.

Form rice into blocks slightly smaller than the salmon slices. Top with salmon and wrap with nori. Makes 20 to 24.

Nutritional information unavailable.

As for Spam ...

no discussion of musubi would be complete without considering Spam musubi. The Japanese may have first claim on the rice ball, but Spam musubi -- that's ours.

There is no definitive history for this aberration, but Ann Kondo Corum, in "Hawaii's 2nd Spam Cookbook" (Bess Press, 2001), says the creator may have been Mitsuko Kaneshiro, who first made them for her children, then started selling them out of City Pharmacy on Pensacola Street. By the early '80s, she was selling 500 a day from her own shop, Michan's Musubi. Now, this was in the pre-acrylic-mold days, so all 500 were formed by hand.

'Musubi Kichigai'

Got rice? Got nori? Start practicing for the fourth annual musubi decorating contest, next month at Wabi-Sabi.

Categories are traditional (triangular shape) and rice sculpture (free form), but all entries must include nori.

Drop off entries from 9 to 10 a.m. July 13 at the shop, 1223 Koko Head Ave. in Kaimuki. The day's events include an ume tasting and book-signing by Joan Namkoong, author of "Go Home, Cook Rice."

The contest is part of "Musubi Kichigai," a promotion through July. Call 734-3693.

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