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Business Insight

Onigiri in the Middle East

Akira Saheki

A food producer in Israel may have a hit on his hands by re-interpreting a traditional Japanese snack. Onigiri is a triangle or ball of white rice, wrapped in nori seaweed, and stuffed with various fillings.

The Israeli version landed at a store in Tel Aviv this autumn, attracting the curiosity of young customers with its odd shape. "I've never tasted one before, but it's delicious. The triangle shape is cool!" said one customer.

People in Israel already have a taste for Japanese food. Sushi is popular, but until now, onigiri has been virtually unknown.

Making the riceballs locally was the idea of store owner Ran Elbaz. He left his job as a computer graphics expert to go into the food business. He discovered onigiri online, while studying world cuisine, and had never eaten a Japanese riceball before.

"We have many sushi places. Onigiri also contains nori seaweed and the same rice. It will be easy for people to try it and like it because they are used to the flavor," says Elbaz, whose store is called Manapua Man.

The entrepreneur has put his own spin on the Japanese lunchbox staple. To ensure efficiency and consistency, he ordered a local factory to produce a special shaping mold. He is particular about his ingredients and even has a vegan offering that contains shiitake mushrooms, eggplant and green peas.

Cooked eggplant is a big favorite in Israel, and Elbaz's fillings are designed to appeal to local palates. He has adapted the Japanese "tuna mayonnaise" recipe by adding cabbage, pickles, and seasoning.

The label design is by an Israeli artist Elbaz also found online. Each onigiri sells for about $3 or $4, quite affordable in Israel, where the cost of living is high.

Elbaz is working to promote his product and recently he distributed samples at a Japanese art museum. It was the first time for most visitors to taste onigiri, and the response was encouraging.

"I was very intrigued to know what the taste is. It was fantastic. It was a surprise for me," said one museum patron.

"I think in the future, people of all ages will develop a taste for onigiri," says Elbaz, who hopes to create a new culinary boom.

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