For the Love of Musubi
Hawaiʻi's Beloved Handheld Meal
Krystal Kakimoto | Feb 13, 2017
Our Love Affair with Musubi
Here in Hawaiʻi, our love affair with musubi goes way back. With so many different variations of musubi available, our obsession for those beloved balls of rice shows no signs of waning. Many of us can easily recount fond memories of mom's homemade musubi neatly molded and packed into our home lunches or enjoying Spam® musubi on school field trips. If you happen to visit a local restaurant or convenience store, you'll have no problem finding a wide variety of musubi neatly lined up and waiting to satiate the appetite of any who are in need of it. The unassuming ingredients of rice, salt, and nori (seaweed) are a simple base for any number of fillings and are the perfect combination of deliciousness and soul-satisfying comfort.
The musubi has its roots in Japan where it is still a mainstay of the Japanese diet and a major symbol of their national culture. The first mention of a musubi-like food is during the Nara Period (710-794 AD) when the use of chopsticks was not as common as it is today. Rice during the Nara Period was formed into small balls so it could easily be eaten by hand. The first mention of musubi in literature dates back to the Heian period in the 11th century when it is mentioned in the diary of Lady Murasaki. In it, she writes of eating rice balls on picnics, but instead of musubi they are called Tonjiki and were rectangular, for stacking.
During the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) and throughout the Edo Period (1603-1868) the musubi took on a new place at the table. Previously, the musubi was merely a method of molding the rice to make eating by hand more convenient. During the Kamakura and Edo periods, the rice was lightly salted and nori (seaweed) was used to wrap, as well as flavor the rice balls. Salted foods such as umeboshi (salted plums), salted salmon, or kombu (edible kelp) were placed in the center of the musubi to add another layer of flavor as well as act as a natural preservative to the rice ball.
"The tradition of the musubi came to Hawaiʻi in the 19th century with a large wave of immigration from Japan."
The rise of the sugar cane and pineapple plantations created an immediate need for field workers in Hawaiʻi. Japanese immigrants who came to work on these fields brought with them the practice of making musubi and packing them in their lunch tins for a midday meal. Most Japanese immigrants to Hawaiʻi came from the Southern and Western areas of Japan and brought their dialect name for the rice balls of musubi which means "to join" or "to knot". Other regions of Japan call rice balls onigiri, which is also a very common name for them in Hawaiʻi.
Working on the plantations was grueling work but the midday lunch break brought much-needed relief from the labor and extreme heat. It was also a chance for the various ethnic groups to mingle. Usually segregated into camps based on the immigrant's ethnic group, lunch was an informal time for these workers of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, and Filipino descent to open their lunches and share bits of their culture with each other. This exchange of foods from their various homelands increased the popularity of musubi in Hawaiʻi, a popularity that continues on to this day.
Japanese immigrants on these plantations also helped create one of the most well-known foods in the islands today, a variation of the musubi —the world famous Spam® musubi. The increased military presence in Hawaiʻi during World War II not only brought more troops and military equipment but also Spam®, one of the most common army rations. When food became scarce, Japanese immigrants got creative and used this canned meat as a topping for their musubi. The first versions of Spam® musubi were layers of steamed white rice, pressed into pans topped with thin slices of Spam®. This version of Spam® musubi was cut like a cake and eaten mostly at dinner time.
"Nori was introduced as a way to wrap the Spam musubi creating individual servings that were easier to eat on-the-go."
Over the years, the musubi has evolved into various forms that satisfy every craving and preference. There is the plain musubi which is made from the highest grade of white rice and lightly salted. This version of musubi is served at some Shinto religious events to symbolize purity and ingested as a way to cleanse the soul. There is also sprinkled musubi which has a liberal covering of ingredients such as gomashiro (sesame seeds) and is often an attractive addition to a bento meal. Musubi also come as "mixed" versions where various seasonings like furikake or green peas are mixed into the cooked rice before being formed into a musubi. Other versions are even grilled and coated with a sweet teriyaki sauce.
The musubi has cemented its place in the history of Hawaiʻi through its cultural origins, versatility, and vast appeal. A quick and convenient snack, it can be made using a wide variety of toppings, methods, and shapes. Most importantly though, the people of Hawaiʻi, of Japanese heritage or not, feel strong nostalgic ties to the musubi. Nutritious and comforting, they remind us of simple childhood picnics and spending time with friends or family. As its Japanese meaning so appropriately suggests the musubi really does do a lot "to join" things together – from the perfect combination of ingredients to a shared love of food.