We take a taste test trip in Okinawa and get acquainted with the local specialty.

You can find onigiri (rice balls) at any convenience store in Japan, but you won’t always find the same kind. Regional tastes and specialties mean some varieties are only offered in certain parts of the country, and in Okinawa Prefecture the local star is the pork tamago (egg) onigiri.

So when our reporter, and pork tamago neophyte, Ikuna Kamezawa was down in Okinawa, she made it her mission to try as many as she could from Japan’s big three convenience stores: Lawson, Family Mart, and 7-Eleven.

▼ Pork tamago onigiri, lined up and waiting at Family Mart

First off, let’s look at what makes a pork tamago onigiri a pork tamago onigiri. The meat is either Spam or a similar substitute, and the egg is a slice of the Japanese-style omelet called tamagoyaki, which has a hint of sweetness to it. In contrast to regular onigiri, where the fillings lie inside the rice in an enclosed core, pork tamago onigiri are layered, similar to the style the rest of Japan more commonly calls onigirazu.

Ikuna came back from her shopping run around Okinawa’s prefectural capital city of Naha with seven different types of pork tamago onigiri, two from 7-Eleven and three each from Lawson and Family Mart (with Family Mart using official Spam in theirs), all in the 200-250 yen (US$1.90-US$2.38) price range. Then she took a deep breath and dug in, starting with Lawson’s standard pork tamago onigiri.

Ikuna had heard that pork tamago onigiri are best warm, so she popped it in the microwave for a few seconds before taking a bite. When she did, she was surprised to find the flavor less intense than she’d been bracing herself for.

In retrospect, though, this made sense. Yes, the pork is seasoned, but tamagoyaki is relative mild, and so, of course, is white rice. Two subtly flavored elements made the overall flavor light too, but it was still tasty, even if she found herself wanting a bowl of miso soup for a little more stimulation of her taste buds.

The standard 7-Eleven pork tamago onigiri left a similar impression, and then it was time to move on to the pork tamago tuna onigiri.

While some onigiri contain slices of raw tuna sashimi, others go with a mixture of cooked tuna and mayo, and that’s what these three offer.

Starting with the Family Mart version, Ikuna found this to be much more to her liking. The heavier flavors from the tuna and mayo somehow seemed to tie everything together and allowed her to better appreciate the contributions of both the pork and egg, something which held true for all three chains’ pork tamago tuna onigiri.

▼ Lawson’s is the meatiest…

▼ …and 7-Eleven gives you the prettiest tamagoyaki.

Things got even better with Family Mart’s pork tamago shiso kombu, which adds Japanese basil (shiso) and kombu (kelp) to the mix.

Well, they sort of got even better. Judged on pure overall taste, it was outstanding, but the flavors of the shiso and kombu were strong enough that they obscured the pork and egg, which were the main things Ikuna wanted to taste (since, you know, she’d bought a pork tamago onigiri). Maybe if you eat pork tamago onigiri so frequently that the marque ingredients feel like old hat to you, this is the one to go with, but Ikuna, having never eaten any pork tamago onigiri in her life before this taste test, wasn’t close to that point of saturation yet.

Finally, Ikuna came to the pork tamago chikina onigiri she’d found at Lawson and Family Mart. From the name, she’d assumed these were pork tamago onigiri that also have chicken, since “chikina” is written in Japanese almost exactly like the English loanword “chicken.”

However, her assumption turned out to be way off base, as chikina is actually the local Okinawan name for what the rest of Japan calls karashina, or mustard greens.

And it turned out that this is what Ikuna had been looking for. The chikina isn’t so powerful as to steal the spotlight from the pork and tamagoyaki, but it also gave her just the right amount of something extra that she’d felt was lacking from the base-standard pork tamago onigiri.

Between the two chikina challengers, Ikuna would give the slight edge to Family Mart’s, making their pork tamago chikina onigiri her favorite of the entire bunch, and so next time she’s in Okinawa, she might just pick of seven of those.

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