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East meets West (for lunch)

Onigirazu are delicious, simple to prepare and easy to eat.

TOKYO -- Companies and individuals are not the only ones facing globalization. Japan's humble onigiri, or rice ball, has met its Western counterpart, the sandwich, and transformed itself into a snack for the 21st century.

     The onigirazu, as the hybrid dish is called, looks like a sandwich at first glance, but instead of bread, the filling is wrapped in the rice and seaweed typical of an onigiri. The core concept of the onigirazu remains the same as that of its two "parents" -- to provide a delicious, easy-to-make and easy-to-eat meal or snack.

     Its unusual appearance may be one reason the onigirazu is attracting increasing numbers of hungry Japanese. It certainly is for Satomi Yao, a PR business consultant. "The colors whet the appetite," she said. "They look fun, and you know immediately what's in them." She said she makes onigirazu at least once a month when she has guests over.

     Or perhaps it is the hectic pace of today's Japanese society that has helped this new trend catch on. More women in Japan are joining the workforce, but preparing food remains largely a woman's responsibility. For these busy wives and mothers, onigirazu is something of a hero. "Onigirazu isn't a side dish, it's a complete meal in itself, containing vegetables, carbohydrates and protein," said Tomoe Matsushima, one such onigirazu fan. "I don't have to worry about preparing four different things for my children's lunch box, wondering which combination would look better and be healthier." She said she makes them for her two sons once a week.

     "My son wanted something quick to eat because he has such a short lunch break during his basketball practices on the weekend," said Yukiko Saikatsu, another onigirazu devotee. "With onigirazu, he doesn't have to sit and open a lunch box; he can eat a whole meal with just one hand."

      The hybrid Japanese-Western food has spread nationwide and is now cropping up outside of household kitchens. Chaki, a seafood restaurant in the city of Kobe, near Osaka, includes it as a "hidden menu item." Manager Koji Izumi said the restaurant developed its ham, egg and cheddar onigirazu at the request of a customer. Chaki is considering adding it to its standard menu.

     Special kitchen gadgets devoted to making onigirazu are available, but making one is simple process and requires no equipment. First, place dried seaweed on a piece of plastic wrap, spread it with steamed rice and layer it with fillings. Next, fold the four corners of the seaweed toward the center and press the whole thing down to make it nice and even. Cut it in half, put it in a lunch box and it's ready to go.

     Though it is quite simple to make, there are some tips to keep in mind. Most importantly, the proper amount of filling is necessary, since the seaweed tends to tear if it is overfilled. As for the filling itself, meat such as barbecued beef or fried chicken goes especially well with lettuce and cucumber.

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