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, 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 seaweed is wrapped around the 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, we can talk about onigiri fillings! Though traditional onigiri tend 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 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! Not sure what that is? Let our “Onigiri Senbei” crackers guide you! Once you've mastered the rice triangle, you can also experiment with other shapes with help from an onigiri mold.
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 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.

We won’t give you a yaki onigiri recipe here, but once you’ve mastered the regular 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 super-cute but also Inception-style “food-imitating-food” presentation! Second recommendation: the onigiri dog plushie. You may not be able to eat this dog’s onigiri, but you can eat your own with him! Consider the onigiri dog a friendly potluck guest, tea party, or even...a fancy Onigiri Rice Ball.

Learn how to open an onigiri rice ball below!