The Japanese take for granted the versatility of rice as a picnic food, since they enjoy eating rice at room temperature, molded into a number of attractive shapes. One of the most popular shapes is called maku no uchi or “between the curtains.” The name refers to the boxed meal that, in the old days, was taken to the theater and eaten between acts. Using molds or kata, as they are called in Japanese, the rice is coaxed into five bite-sized cylinders, which are then decoratively garnished with strips of seaweed or a sprinkling of black sesame. In America, Decorative Rice Bundles are as perfect for a tailgate party (or any other outdoor meal) as for a buffet table.
If you’ll be packing the rice for a picnic, it’s particularly important to salt it right after it has been cooked, as this acts as a preservative. Sprinkle the salt over the rice and toss lightly to mix well.
Separate a maku no uchi kata, or mold, into its three component parts: a rectangular frame and two strips, each with five curved and hollowed “valleys” and six pointed “mountains.”
Dip the rectangular frame in cold water and lay it upon your work board. Dip one of the strips in cold water and fit it into the frame so that the pointed “mountains” face up. With hands dipped in cold water, scoop up one third of the warm salted rice and fill the mold evenly with it. Take the remaining strip of the mold and dampen it in cold water. Insert it, “mountains” pointing down, into the frame. Press down firmly but evenly on the top strip, while gently lifting the frame up, over, and off the molded rice. Peel off the top strip, invert the rice, then peel off the remaining strip of mold. With fingers dampened in cold water, separate the five bundles of rice. Repeat the molding procedure to make fifteen bundles in all.
In a clean, dry skillet, toast the black sesame seeds over high heat for about 30 seconds. Shake the pan to keep the seeds in motion. Garnish the rice bundles with a few black sesame seeds in the center of each cylinder. Or, with scissors, cut the seaweed into fifteen strips, and use one of these to encircle each bundle of rice.
Arrange the bundles in rows, or stack them in pyramidlike hills. Cover with clear plastic wrap to prevent the edges from drying if you wish to make the rice bundles more than 30 minutes in advance of serving. The salted, molded rice will keep well at room temperature for 5–6 hours. The Japanese figure five or more cylinders per person, but most Americans will want only two or three.
© 1985 Elizabeth Andoh. All rights reserved.