A Comfort and a Curse: Rice Balls in When The Emperor Was Divine

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Rice balls

Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine, Wheelock’s summer reading book, tells the story of the Japanese American Internment during WWII through the eyes of an unnamed Japanese family. While food plays a small role in this story, the impact of the description of rice balls is poignant. The mother in the story considers rice balls with pickled plums, known as umeboshi,  to be a comfort food and eats them with pleasure in the beginning of the novel. Later on, however, we learn that one of the things Japanese families did in an attempt to “blend in” as the anti-Japanese sentiment grew in the US was to stop eating their traditional foods. Rice balls no longer went to school with the children in their lunch boxes. Rice balls in the story bring a sense of comfort while simultaneously acting as a symbol of unwelcomed otherness. Rice balls are a truly delicious and surprisingly simple dish to make, and I found myself thinking of the family in this story, and their complicated relationship to this wonderful dish, as I made my version.

My mold and my fillings

My mold and my fillings

The first thing you need to do to make rice balls is make sushi rice. This is NOT the same as “sticky rice” so don’t get confused! I followed Alton Brown’s recipe here. Once you have made your rice, you need to fill and mold your rice balls. Taking my cues from this recipe for rice balls, I used a small dish I had in my kitchen for the mold. I went the easy route on the filling and picked up some “Asian salad” and grilled teriyaki salmon at Whole Foods to use as my filling. My first attempt at molding a rice ball didn’t go very well because, in my haste to get one of these in my belly, I used tin foil to line the mold instead of plastic wrap. Not ok! Tin foil and sushi rice…stick together. A lot. SO, after I ditched the tin foil, I pressed rice into a plastic wrap lined bowl, added about a teaspoon of filling, then topped with more rice.  I folded the plastic wrap over the top and pressed down to mold the rice balls, then turned them out onto my plate.

A peek at the filling

Finished rice balls with a peek at the filling

They came out great! These snacks were fun, easy, and a great way to connect with one of important food-related cultural moments in When the Emperor Was Divine.  

This post is the third in a series that will explore the topics found in this year’s Wheelock summer reading selection, When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka.

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