Mami’s yaki onigiri. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

I was introduced to onigiri, and yaki onigiri, 35 years ago when I lived in Japan. For years after I returned to the States, I could rarely find either, and onigiri was among the foods I missed most. Now, onigiri (sometimes, in Hawaii, called omusubi) have caught on in the U.S., but yaki onigiri remain – at least in my experience in Maine – harder to find. “Yaki” means grilled in Japanese; “onigiri” are rice balls, so these are, you got it, grilled rice balls, although often, as at Mami, they’re in the shape of a triangle.

Typically in Japan, onigiri have a small knob of filling – things like pickled plum or spicy tuna – whereas yaki onigiri are not filled. At least that’s how I remember it. But Mami fills its yaki onigiri, and I am not complaining.

At lunch one day late last month, that filling was a small amount of carrots and garlicy sweet potato rendered with pork fat. The yaki onigiri was brushed with a soy-miso glaze and chili crisp (that last also non-traditional) before it was grilled. After the snack had burnished to a deep, caramely brown, it arrived at my table, nice and warm and scattered with scallions and furikake. I broke it open with chopsticks: The medium-grain rice was moist, chewy and soft all at once, the crispy crust a perfect contrast. If “umami” were a smell rather than a taste, it’d smell like this did.

Mami, a lunch and dinner cafe, says it sells about 30 yaki onigiri a day in the winter, double that come summertime. Other recent fillings have included spicy salmon and beef with shishito peppers. In Japan, I encountered yaki onigiri mostly on nights out drinking and sharing small plates of Japanese bar food. You eat them with very fresh oshinko (Japanese pickles), said my friend Dan, who grew up in Japan, worked there for years and speaks fluent Japanese, explaining, “at the end of the meal to absorb all the alcohol. The capstone.”

For me, yaki onigiri bring back memories of (specifically) dark, snug izakayas under the train tracks in Tokyo, and (generally) being young and carefree and on a grand adventure.

And Mami’s yaki onigiri are delicious.

Yaki onigiri, $7; Mami, 339 Fore St., Portland, 207-536-4702,

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