Quick Take:

Zen Musubi opened earlier this month in the kiosk on Pacific Avenue formerly occupied by Café Campesino. Owner Lisa Koda’s menu of Japanese rice balls with fillings like wild-caught salmon, tofu and Spam is made with organic ingredients — and good karma.

Musubi, nigiri, onigiri — whatever name is used, it describes the same thing: a rice ball with a tasty filling, wrapped in nori, or dried seaweed. It’s a healthy snack or a quick, handheld meal for children and adults in Japan and beyond — including, now, downtown Santa Cruz.

In mid-September, Zen Musubi moved into the kiosk formerly occupied by Café Campesino in front of New Leaf Market on Pacific Avenue. There, owner Lisa Koda offers a menu of rice balls filled with wild-caught salmon, spicy tuna, chicken miso, tofu and more ($5.50 to $6 for one piece).

At Zen Musubi, the humble rice ball becomes a vehicle for holistic health, a way to channel positive energy and even improve karma. Because of this connection, Koda prefers the name musubi because of its relationship to the word musuhi. In the Shinto religion, musuhi refers to the spiritual influence that produces all things in the universe, or how “all ingredients come together to make something new,” explains Koda.

Lisa Koda, owner of Zen Musubi.
Lisa Koda, owner of Zen Musubi. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Koda channels positive spiritual energy into her food through the use of quality, organic ingredients and literally, she believes, through her hands as she forms each rice ball. “The palm of our hands has energy. We have to use our palm so we merge our energy into the ingredients,” she says. Because each musubi is hand-formed, sometimes it might be slightly irregular, but the most important thing, she says, is the energy and love.

“If you are happy when you make your rice ball, it goes into the musubi, and it’s going to be delivered to the customer,” she says.

Finally, she decorates each musubi with a pretty floral design cut into the seaweed wrap. The delicate flower serves two purposes, she says. It’s a beautiful way to present her rice ball to the customer, and a reminder that life is short and should be enjoyed: “The flower has a very short lifespan, and life is the same. Life is too short. We hope the flower brings joy to their life. Whoever eats our rice ball, I hope they have a happy life.”

Koda is from Tokyo and began her career as a writer before immigrating to California 17 years ago. She met her husband, Ross Koda, while working in Los Angeles. His grandfather founded the respected Koda Farms, and his family has grown high-quality organic heirloom rice in the San Joaquin Valley for almost a century.

While selling Koda Farms rice at farmers markets, Lisa had the idea to make rice balls. She launched her musubi at farmers markets in Aptos, Palo Alto and Marin County, and quickly gained fans.

For Koda, the quality and nutritional value of her ingredients is crucial, from the organic, heirloom rice from Koda Farms to her homemade sauces made with gluten-free soy sauce. She chooses to only use non-GMO ingredients, organic cane sugar, avocado or grapeseed oil and sea salt for their health benefits as well.

The Spam musubi at Zen Musubi, a kiosk on Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz.
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

So when Koda’s customers asked for musubi made with Spam, a salty, processed canned pork, she resisted. Although it’s a popular musubi in Hawaii, Spam was exactly the kind of ingredient she wanted to avoid. She decided to compromise by adding it to her menu with a few healthful additions: She sprinkles each with a mixture of dried mulberry leaves, known to lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and flaxseed, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids. Neither of these ingredients has any flavor, but they might make eating a Spam musubi ($9.50 for two pieces) a little healthier.

It’s hard to say whether it’s the quality of the ingredients, the skill of the hands that make them or the love infused by Koda, but it’s difficult to finish one of her musubi without a smile on your face. The warm, nutty rice filled with sweet crab, tender chicken or topped with a tender slice of Spam is a filling meal that’s easily enjoyed on one of the metal tables surrounding the kiosk.

For Koda, she’s happiest when her customers are happy. “I want to pass on good karma to my customers,” she says. “If you do your best to accumulate good karma by thinking of others, it feels so good. It inspires joy.”

1130 Pacific Ave. K1, Santa Cruz. Open every day 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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Lily Belli is the food and drink correspondent at Lookout Santa Cruz. Over the past 15 years since she made Santa Cruz her home, Lily has fallen deeply in love with its rich food culture, vibrant agriculture...