All About Onigiri, The Amazing Rice Ball Snack!

by Emi Noguchi

Onigiri (“rice balls”) have been around for about as long as food has been documented in Japan. It’s a staple in Japanese food because it’s nutritious and delicious. It makes sense: glutinous white rice binds well to itself: easy to eat with one’s hands. Since it’s carb-rich, easy to make, requires few ingredients, and is resilient when carried, onigiri has made for excellent fare on long journeys over foodscarce roadways for centuries

All About Onigiri, The Amazing Rice Ball Snack!

Today, the delicious onigiri are made in two ways: by hand and by machine. If a hungry student or office worker forgets their bento at home or needs an extra snack, they can easily pick one up at a convenience store or the odd vending machine. These machine-made onigiri are packaged in a complicated thin plastic wrapping designed to separate nori (seaweed) from rice in order to maintain crispness and flavor. Follow the tiny printed instructions very carefully, and like magic, fresh, flavorful nori seaweed is wrapped around the cooked rice: no need for any knowledge as to how to make onigiri in the first place. But since we’re on the topic of how to make onigiri, let’s get a quick onigiri recipe in.

All About Onigiri, The Amazing Rice Ball Snack!

 Onigiri Recipe

The first step, of course, is to cook your Japanese short-grain rice. Recent iterations even use mixed rice to make onigiri. Rinse Japanese sticky rice until the water runs clear, and be sure to soak it for at least forty minutes or so before hitting that “ON” button on your rice cooker. While we’re waiting for the steamed rice to finish cooking, we can talk about onigiri fillings! Though traditional onigiri tends to be either plain or umeboshi (super sour pickled plum), you can put just about anything in your onigiri. Tuna onigiri, often called tuna mayo, is a particularly popular option. Salmon onigiri, which uses just a little bit of salty, cooked salmon, is also among the more popular onigiri fillings. They all just use a dollop: in any onigiri “recipe,” just a little flavor goes a long way!

Once your rice is cooked, use a rice paddle to break up the warm rice and release some of the heat from cooking. When the rice is cool enough to handle, clean your hands and wet them with salt water to keep from getting sticky, the same way you’d flour your hands before working with dough. Gently cup some cooked rice gently in your palms, whatever amount is comfortable for your hand size. Gently compact and shape the cooked rice into that iconic onigiri shape! Once you've mastered the rice triangle, you can also experiment with other shapes with help from an onigiri mold.

Preparing traditional Japanese onigiri on table

Back to our onigiri recipe. Once you’ve packed your rice densely enough that it won’t fall apart, it’s time to add your own onigiri filling. Want a more moist experience? Try the tuna onigiri with a little mayo. Again, you don’t need to fill the entire Japanese rice ball. You might not even reach the filling on your first bite! Want something a little more punchy? Opt for salmon onigiri or, if you like it tart, umeboshi. Wrap a strip of seaweed around one side of the triangle, seal it with a little bit of salted water, and you’re done! You can enjoy your own onigiri by dipping it in soy sauce or coating it with sesame seeds, bonito flakes, or dried seaweed.

Preparing traditional Japanese onigiri on table

We won’t give you a yaki onigiri recipe here, but once you’ve mastered the regular, delicious onigiri, you can try your hand at grilled—or pan-seared—yaki onigiri! Yaki onigiri is a bit splashier, in flavor (it’s served with a sweet-salty-umami glaze), texture (crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside), and presentation (it’s generally cooked to a golden brown).

If you are already a big fan of onigiri, we recommend two non-food items. First, the onigiri sushi plate, on which your sushi fills in the “white rice” section and shoyu is poured into the dark nori wrapper for a super-cute but also Inception-style “food-imitating-food” presentation! Second recommendation: our monthly Japanese snack box subscription has a monthly theme with limited-edition gifts as well! Order your first Bokksu and discover delicious snacks with cute surprises inside.

Learn how to open an onigiri rice ball below!

Author Bio

Emi Noguchi is a fiction writer, blogger, and freelance writing instructor, and co-founder of MFA App Review. After studying standard Japanese at Columbia University, she picked up Kansai-ben while living in Osaka and some Awa-ben in her paternal hometown in Tokushima. Emi is a 2020 recipient of the John Weston Award and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. You can read her work in Essay Daily, The Spectacle, and Fairy Tale Review. Emi is currently writing a novel about diasporic illnesses, art-making, and traditional Japanese puppetry.