The healing power of an umeboshi onigiri

this is from The Japanese Life of Bento

I’ve mentioned the vegetarian/vegan cookbook author Yumiko Kano before on these pages, including a review of her lunch and bento book, Saisai Lunch. Ms. Kano produces books with astonishing frequency, as do many popular Japanese cookbook authors, at a rate of 2 to 3 books a year, so it’s a bit hard to keep up with her output. But I do like her recipes a lot so I try to get most of them.

Her two most recent books are Saisai Otsumami and Yasai no Kamisama. Saisai Otsumami, another in the Saisai (“vegetable-vegetable”) series, is a photo-rich cookbook of snacks that are eaten while drinking (otsumami), all vegan of course. A cookbook of healthy, vegan snacks to eat while imbibing is a seems a bit, well, illogical to me, but the recipes look delicious. I don’t drink much so I don’t have a big need for new ideas for drinking snacks, but I’ll be trying some out and seeing what can be adapted to bentos for sure.

Her other book, Yasai no Kamisama (The Gods of Vegetables) is a collection of essays about food, with recipes. I’ve just flipped through it so far, but this one essay, called The Power of Onigiri, really caught my attention. Here’s a rough and abbreviated translation.

I have been divorced twice. The second time […], less than a year after we had filed our marriage papers, during which time we had been so busy with work that we had kept missing each other, I found out that my husband had another woman. He would often leave the house without saying a word, and not come back until late at night. When I confronted him, he confessed that he was in love with another woman….

I was so devastated. It was as if I’d been hit by a tsunami - it was so out of the blue. I felt as if I had fallen into a deep, dark place. I wanted to kill myself.

When I was at the depths of despair, my husband said this to me. “I don’t care if you die. But if you blame me for it, I’ll never forgive you.” Those words were like having a rock fall on my head right after having fallen into the depths of hell.

But amazingly, getting such loveless words thrown at me from someone I loved helped me to regain myself again. It was as if I was able to face my loss of hope head-on…

And then I got hungry. It was as if my body was craving nourishment for my soul. And what did I want to eat? An umeboshi onigiri.

from Onigiri On Parade!

She goes on to detail a recipe for onigiri using organically farmed rice and so on. But to me what struck me about her story (besides, OMG WHAT A BASTARD HER EX HUSBAND IS!) is the fact that food can heal you, spiritually as well as physically. A homemade bento, whether it has an onigiri in it or not, may not necessarily be life-changing, but it is a little bit of healing comfort for me. It could be a cultural thing though…to me, rice (and it has to be white rice) is comfort food in many levels. I just asked The Guy what it is for him, and he said “lasagna or a crusty loaf of bread”.

Do you have a healing food, something that helped you get over a particularly rough spot in your life? What would you pack for yourself or your loved ones in a ‘healing’ bento?

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Re: The healing power of an umeboshi onigiri

I used to make miso soup for breakfast. Even if I had not gotten a good night's sleep, a mug of the soup would perk me right up and help me feel better. I can't do it presently because my nursling can't tolerate my eating miso, but someday. Now I buy soy-free canned "chunky" soups. My favorite currently is Italian-style wedding, with tiny meatballs, spherical pasta, and lots of spinach. If I have some time to myself out of the house, I sometimes sit over a bowl of steaming soup at a restaurant while I read a book. The local Chinese restaurant makes several delicious kinds every day.

With three kids, I lead a busy life. My comfort foods are partly symbolic of my having had time to cook something I can set aside just for myself and my husband: banana muffins; homemade baked macaroni and cheese; rice baked in homemade white sauce with chopped mushrooms, topped with pieces of chicken. My kids aren't very interested in these things. I also like other things that we can share: perfectly done hard-cooked eggs, still warm from the pot, with a bit of sea salt and mustard powder; corn bread muffins with butter and honey; pancakes.

When I have been wretchedly ill, nothing is quite as nice as a bowl of absolutely plain Cream of Rice or Cream of Wheat cooked until almost stiff. I can't stand it plain when I'm well, but it is so nice when I've been sick.

Rice congee and hot noodle soup

As someone mentioned before, my ultimate soul food is also a BIG bowl of hot rice congee. It can be as simple as just plain congee drizzled with soy sauce or Marmite, or if I care to do a bit more, with side dishes like pickles, omelet, fermented tofu and canned meat stew. Sometimes I make hearty congee with bacon bones, dried scallops, century egg, and occasionally with fish. My mom always made congee when someone in the family was not feeling well because it's light, easy to digest and warms you up instantly.

If I'm outside and feeling down, my congee substitute would be any kind of Asian noodle soup from Japanese ramen and Chinese wanton noodle soup to Vietnamese Pho and Malaysian laksa, as long as there's noodle and hot soup in it, even cup noodles are fine if I'm really desperate.

There are times when I need very unhealthy comfort food too, like Nutella and banana sandwich, peanut butter and jelly on toasts and dark chocolate. Sugar heals in some cases.

Re: The healing power of an umeboshi onigiri

I just moved away from my family again, halfway across our country. I found myself crying, wanting "Grandma Gale's donuts" from talking to my Nana, I found out that Grandma Gale is actualy HER great grandma, so my Great-great-great Grandmother. They are the best donuts. Best eaten still warm and dipped in warmed (REAL) maple syrup.

At Christmas time it's Jolly Scrooge punch and Chocolate Balls. It doesn't feel right without them. Oh, and the baked stuffing(dressing).

Chicken broccoli casserole, home made pizza dough and pizza sauce. Salmon loaf. Tuna on toast.

Several of these where broke food, but it started me on a love of spices and blending.

On of my most precious gifts is the handwritten recipes that my mom wrote up for me as a gift.

Re: The healing power of an umeboshi onigiri

I went thru a terrible phase of an eating disorder and had a hard time eating normally. Along the way I discovered the beautifully balanced and presented bento boxes. Since I am South Asian, coming from a rice and fish eating culture, sushi and sashimi immediately appealed to me. I still buy my lunches from Japanese stores but at some point do intend to start making my own bentos.

The beautiful bento boxes, eaten slowly with a pair of chopsticks and the lovely pickles which add flavour have gone a long way in making my eating disorder better.

Re: The healing power of an umeboshi onigiri

Well I'm not Japanese but Katsudon (without the Tonkatsu (I hope I spelt that right)). When I'm down that dish is exactly what I need. It's just something about that beated poached egg with onions and sweet soy sauce over rice; perfect thing for winter.

Homemade ramen comes in a close second followed by goulash and my sis's mac and cheese.

Re: The healing power of an umeboshi onigiri

Reading the post & the comments just makes me tear up a bit as I am reminded of how surprisingly strong the healing power of food. They always seemed to fill you up when you are down, physically & mentally.

For me, my comfort food is rice & bread-based =P Steamingly hot white rice or flavoured porridge (Fish or chicken is the usual choice), a loaf of white bread or raisin bun, these are my usual choices. If not, a bowl of soup (My favourite will be what my mother called the ABC soup, it's a type of Chinese soup boiled with carrots, potatoes & tomatoes in chicken stock)

Every time when I feel bad, I will do my best to eat at least for a little, that will make me feel better & I will tell myself, "Now I get to eat, nothing's worse than not able to eat."

Great article & Ms. Kano's ex-husband is a total jerk, I hope that she will get better throughout her life =D

PS, It seems that the whole 'eating will make you feel better' concept is quite known among my friends too, whenever one of us has a breakdown moment, we will hug the person until he/she settles down a little, the next thing we will ask is, "Do you want to go & eat something?" *laughs* They did this to me too & I really appreciate that ^W^

Re: The healing power of an umeboshi onigiri

I know it's been over a year since you posted this, but I just stumbled across it again.
A year ago my grandmother died. It wasn't really a shock, she'd been sick for a long time, but that didn't really make it hurt any less. I grew up talking to her nearly every day. I learned to cook in her kitchen, I got my first baking lessons from her, all the old movies and shows I love because I watched them with her, hers was the first number I'd call whenever I had some problem I needed fixed. Hell, it's been a year and I still think "I should call Nanny and ask her" before I realize I can't do that.
Worse still, the day after she died, I ended up in the hospital with a blood infection that could have killed me. It was a kick in the teeth. My family was busy with their arrangements and caught up in their own lives to spare much time for me. And so I spent a week sitting in a hospital bed (trying not to let my hospital phobia overwhelm me), alone. I felt like the universe was mocking me for having been too afraid to visit her when she was stuck in the same position. I even had to miss the funeral.
For weeks after, I was lost. I really didn't know what to do with myself. I kept reaching for the phone to call a person who wasn't there and then being mad at myself. Until one afternoon, I knew what it was I needed.
I made mac and cheese.
Not just any mac and cheese. Hers. Everyone seems to have their own mix and so did she. I had taken it for granted for years, but that all changed. I nearly ate myself sick.
Now it's the thing I make when I'm having a bad day and she's not there to call. It doesn't fix the problem, but it makes her seem a little less far away.

Re: The healing power of an umeboshi onigiri

Thanks for sharing that Gwen.

Re: The healing power of an umeboshi onigiri

Turkey. We didn't have much money, but mom worked at the turkey factory back when they gave it out by the box. I remember moving from my small town to college and wanting a turkey drumstick like mom made. I found them at one of the festivals in the city- I honestly thought they would be maybe $1-$1.50 a drumstick. I was shocked when they turned out to be $6 prepared!

Turkey and dumplings, and rum balls (made with orange juice OR rum!). Lighter foods are nice, since mom tried to be healthy. I still get creeped out by FryDaddys. :)

Re: The healing power of an umeboshi onigiri

Growing up in Sweden (with Persian parents) my comfort foods ranged anywhere between "Tae-Dig"- the crunchy bottoms of any Persian rice dish- to "Fiskbullar" - squishy Swedish fish-dumplings in dill sauce.

Another major comforter was -and still is- Persian rice with ketchup (!). Coming home after school I would scoop some fresh, steaming rice from the rice cooker into a bowl and gently mix in some ketchup. The scent of boiling Basmati rice will always provide a warm comforting feeling for me.

Poutine (Canadian style french fries topped with cheese curd and brown gravy) became my staple comfort food during my final college years in New York. My roommate and I would venture out to "Pommes Frites" in the middle of the night to cure our cravings and heal our emotional wounds brought on by existential crisis, boyfriends and finals.

Japanese food -especially things containing umeboshi- also comforts me greatly! <3

Re: The healing power of an umeboshi onigiri

I bake. Anything that requires following simple but precise steps helps me regain a little focus (and control, I suppose) in times of crisis. And the funny thing is, sometimes I don't even need to eat it in the end to feel better. Though a little slice of chocolate cake never hurts. :)

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