Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Lily's Wasabi Tuna Onigiri, Complete with Cherry Blossoms

And perfect for a picnic!

It’s cherry blossom season in Washington, which means hordes of tourists flocking to the Tidal Basin to view the gorgeous Japanese cherry trees lining the walk ways and monuments. Of course, trees all over the city are in bloom, but these are undoubtedly the most famous, and with good reason. They’re gorgeous, and people have been appreciating and documenting their beauty long before the invention of the selfie stick. 

But why does Washington boast such a beautiful variety of cherry blossoms? And who is this character you’re using to represent this post?

American Girl has not been great about acknowledging Asian American history, and historically neither have museums, professional historians, or elementary school text books. Since we’re still waiting for an official Asian American BeForever character (we miss you, Ivy!), I decided to take matters into my own hands: meet Lily Suda, one of Nanea’s best friends!

Lily and her family have been living in Hawaii at least since before Lily was born. Hawaii boasts a huge Japanese immigrant community then and now. Although the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii arrived in 1806, the Japanese government had some anxiety about how the outside world would judge their nation if they saw Japanese immigrants working as laborers. Immigration from Japan to Hawaii – then an independent nation with its own monarchy and government – was banned from 1869 to 1885, with the first 153 new Japanese immigrants arriving on February 5, 1885. From there, they became an integral part of Hawaii’s incredibly diverse population, influencing Hawaiian food, culture, and industry. 

After Hawaii was forced to become a territory of the United States (a move that was not supported by Japan), Japanese immigrants continued to settle in the islands, and those who had already been living there eventually began to view themselves as Americans. Although Hawaii wasn’t a state yet, it was still heavily westernized, and children born in Hawaii after April 30, 1900 were American citizens no matter their ethnic background. Japanese Americans became one of the biggest populations in the Hawaiian Islands, and would experience several challenges in the coming of the Second World War. 

While Japanese Americans on the west coast were forced into internment camps for the duration of the war out of fear that they were spying for the Japanese, a similar wide scale policy could not be implemented in Hawaii. This was not out of a sense of compassion or tolerance for Japanese American citizens, but rather a matter of logistics: interning the entire Japanese American population on Hawaii would have made a mess of the infrastructure of Hawaii. There would be few people left to run businesses, and there was also no real logical place to relocate the population to. A smaller number of Japanese Americans were interred in Hawaii, but these were largely people identified as being “pro-Japanese” or otherwise a possible threat to national security. Whether this was actually the case or not is still being debated today. 

In Nanea’s stories, Lily’s father is taken away to an internment camp by the government after the attack on Pearl Harbor in what turns out to be a case of mistaken identity: he shares the name of someone who was considered an enemy of the state. After the mistake is rectified, he is able to return home to his family, but is forbidden to operate his fishing boat because he is Japanese and in the eyes of the government might use it to spy for Japan. This makes supporting his family challenging, and the books frequently touch on the difficulty he faces finding work.

Lily’s older brother Gene is forbidden to enlist in the military following the attack because he is Japanese, even though he is eager to enlist and defend his country the same way other young men were. He joins the Varsity Victory Volunteers instead, a group of Japanese American young men who volunteered to work on military projects in Hawaii. The VVV’s hard work and dedication led to an announcement in 1943 that the military wanted to form an all Nisei (American born) Regiment. The VVV asked to be disbanded to form the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. 

The 442nd RCT would see action in Europe, and would become the most highly decorated regiment in US Armed Forces history. Daniel Inouye, who would serve as a United States senator from Hawaii from 1963 until his death in 2012 and helped create the National Museum of the American Indian, served with the 442nd and would be awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions during the war. Unfortunately, again thanks to racism, this honor would not be given to him until 2000 by President Bill Clinton. 

So, that’s a brief history of Japanese Americans in Hawaii. What about the cherry blossoms? 

Hanami is the Japanese custom of appreciating the beauty of flowering trees in early spring, particularly sakura, or cherry blossoms. The custom is hundreds of years old, and today largely features parties and outdoor gatherings under the trees during the day or night. The trees are beautiful, and this beauty did not go unnoticed by American visitors to Japan in the late 1800’s. But we’ll get to that in a bit. 

To celebrate cherry blossom season and introduce some Japanese recipes to this blog, I turned to the traditional favorite onigiri, or rice balls. American fans of badly dubbed Japanese TV shows in the late 1990’s might be familiar with these being called “jelly donuts” on Pokémon and similar programs, because apparently in the eyes of 4Kids Entertainment, American kids are stupid enough not to realize these tasty treats are definitely not a fried pastry. 

I picked these because they’re great snacks or fare for light meals, and should travel well, making them ideal for picnicking under a beautiful cherry tree. Onigiri is fairly simple to make, and requires one main ingredient: sushi rice. Sushi rice is sticker than other varieties, and thus can be molded and shaped into balls more easily. I cooked up two cups of sushi rice for this recipe, which I rinsed and drained before cooking. I combined the rice with two cups of water and left it to sit for 30 minutes before bringing it to a boil, reducing the heat to low, covering it and letting it simmer for about 15 minutes.

While that was cooking, I made my filling. Onigiri is traditionally filled with salted fish but can be filled with pretty much anything you want. I decided to make a combination of tuna fish, soy sauce, and wasabi.

After my rice was done cooking, I took it off the heat and let it sit for ten minutes. It got nice and sticky, but unfortunately it also burned to the bottom of the pan. Let’s just say I don’t cook rice often.

Using a scoop, I measured out 1/2 of a cup of rice, flattened it out on a cutting board, and dropped about a tablespoon of filling onto the patty. I then folded the rice up over the filling, a lot like how you’d seal a hamantaschen, and shaped it into a triangle.

Traditionally these are often finished off with a stripe of nori – dried seaweed – but the packet I ordered on Amazon didn’t get here in time, and of course my grocery store didn’t have any. So I had naked onigiri. 

One of the challenges with cherry blossom season is it’s kind of a moving target. Washington has an annual Cherry Blossom Festival, but whether it will coincide with the flowers in peak bloom is definitely not guaranteed, what with the trees being living beings that are influenced by the climate and all. The day I made my onigiri was supposed to be the time the flowers were in peak bloom originally, but then we had a really bad cold snap, and almost nothing was in bloom. 

Still, I thought why waste the day? And headed downtown to see what there was to see. 

As it turns out, not much.

Although the buds were nice and big, none of the Yoshino trees on the tidal basin had popped yet, so everything was pretty naked, just like my onigiri!

I packed it in a Tupperware and got ready to enjoy a slightly unphotogenic picnic. 

The onigiri held up pretty well riding in my bag on the metro ride downtown, but my filling was a little too pale to photograph well in the bright sunlight. I’m sure if it was a little darker it would have looked more photogenic and less blob like!

That being said, for a first try, I think they came out pretty well. They held their shape nicely (although I wasn’t confident enough to hold them in my hands instead of eating them with a fork) and the filling was really tasty. I used enough wasabi to feel like I was clearing out my sinuses every time I took a bite. It also was totally fine to eat at room temperature or refrigerated, or hot out of the pan! 

So despite the disappointing lack of blossoms, I still got to enjoy a picnic lunch with the cherry trees. (Please note the tree Lily is sitting under is not actually a cherry tree…)

There were also a few blossoms to be seen in front of the Washington Monument, making for a very pretty picture!

Two weeks later, and the blossoms had finally started to open up enough to get that perfect selfie.

Unfortunately the day I went down was pretty cloudy, so it was hard to get the perfect photo light balance wise. But hey, that’s March/April for you! And the trees still looked gorgeous even with the dark skies.

Okay, okay, I still haven’t told you why we have these gorgeous trees on the Tidal Basin yet. 

Eliza Scidmore – traveler, author, reporter, the first female board member of the National Geographic Society – made it her mission to try and convince the federal government to plant Japanese cherry trees along the driveway of Potomac Park to beautify the area. In 1909, she found a sympathetic partner in Helen Taft, wife of William Howard Taft, who also wanted to spruce up downtown Washington. 

Mrs. Taft was especially sympathetic because she had visited Japan while her husband was governor of the Philippines and knew just how beautiful the cherry blossoms were. She and her husband were also enthusiastic motorists, so having gorgeous trees to drive by was very personally appealing. 

Taft and Scidmore worked to secure a donation of 2,000 cherry trees from Japan in 1910. Unfortunately, when these trees arrived in the United States, inspectors discovered they were all infested with bugs and needed to be destroyed. Undaunted, they organized a second donation of 3,020 Yoshino cherry trees along with several other varieties in 1912, some of which were planted in front of the White House. These trees survived, and soon others began to be planted all over Washington. The United States donated flowering dogwood trees to Japan three years later as a similar gesture of good will.

The cherry blossoms quickly became a symbol of the capital city. The first National Cherry Blossom Festival occurred in 1934, and in 1938, Washingtonians were upset to hear that some of the trees would be cut down to make way for the new Jefferson Memorial. A group of women even chained themselves to the trees in protest. Eventually, a compromise was reached: the trees would be transplanted, not cut down.

During World War II, four cherry trees were cut down, likely as retaliation after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Throughout the war, people began referring to the trees as “Oriental Cherry Trees” and the festival was suspended until 1947. Fortunately, the rest of the trees survived the war mostly unharmed. Interestingly, the gift came full circle in 1981, when cuttings from the trees along the Tidal Basin were gifted to horticulturalists in Japan after several trees were killed in a flood.

When I was downtown (on April 1, for the record), the blossoms were not yet at "peak" bloom, which is when at least 70% of the Yoshino trees are fully in bloom. What was in bloom was absolutely gorgeous though, and I didn't understand some of the comments I overheard from tourists saying it looks like the trees are "struggling" or "aren't that pretty yet". I mean, look at these!

Cherry blossom season in DC is a busy time even if the trees aren't fully in bloom and even if you're not coming the weekend of the official festival, which traditionally includes concerts, food vendors, parades, and a 10 Mile and 5K Run. It can be frustrating trying to see them thanks to the crowds on the metro and on the walkways around the Tidal Basin, but if you have a chance, you should definitely come check them out. They really are beautiful. The trees around the basin have flowers that range from dark pink to pink to blush to white, and there are so many of them around the basin that you'll feel like you've been transported into a different world!

I hope you enjoyed this look at Japanese American history and history of the Washington cherry trees as much as I enjoyed writing it! Although I'm still disappointed that American Girl has never had a historical main character of Asian American descent, I'm happy that Lily - even if I had to make her myself - can join Ivy on this blog in teaching readers about the contributions of Asian American communities in American culture and history. Plus, now I have an excuse to make a lot of tasty Japanese recipes! I can't wait to share more of them with you. 

Happy spring!

Will you be going to the Cherry Blossom Festival next year?


  1. Wow! So much information packed into one blog post. I feel so educated:)

    Hopefully next year I get to see them in person!

    1. You've definitely got to do it before Greg graduates at least! Tell Dad to bring an extra memory card. ;)

  2. I love Washington and miss going there especially when the trees were in full bloom. Back in 1967, when I was a senior that is were we went for our field trip. One of my fondest memories though how we had to dress was not great for walking around Washington up the Monument stairs. Girls had to have a dress with jacket or a suit with stocking and high heels. The boys had to wear a suit and tie. Oh my how times have changed but that is another subject.

    Love your story and so much research went into this post. I have to go back and read it again as I think I missed somethings.

    Now onto the recipe. They look delicious and I often wanted to make those and the dumplings (I think that is what they are called). I love rice and will have to give it a try. Are vegetables ever added, like thin steamed carrot slices for color.
    Wonder why the rice burned if you took it off the heat. Maybe giving it a stir halfway during the cooking might help that.

    1. I think you can fill them with basically anything you want! Veggie onigiri sounds delicious. Thanks for sharing your story!

  3. Beautiful pictures of the cherry blossoms and Lily! I enjoy looking at the cherry blossoms every year. We have several Japanese gardens in my area and cherry blossom festivals.

    Onigiri are fun to make and eat, but my favorite is yaki onigiri. These are rice balls that are grilled or pan fried with a little soy sauce so they are caramelized on the outside. I highly recommend trying them sometime!

    1. Ooh, that sounds delicious! I'd definitely like to give that a try. Thanks for the recommendation!

  4. So interesting and such pretty photos! I love these trees so much. I haven't been to WA yet. I live in Vancouver BC and we have hundreds of cherry trees here. We planted one in our front yard for Vancouver's 125th anniversary a few years ago. It's a Kanzan tree and has a deeper pink blossom.

    1. That sounds beautiful! Just another reason to want to visit Vancouver. :)

  5. What an incredible story. So Informative, detailed and chock-full of information.
    Thanks for sharing. 🤗
    Is your sweet Asian doll a #54 ?