Since before chopsticks were invented, the Japanese have been rolling sticky rice up into balls that are easy to pick up and eat by hand. Not only are onigiri a tidy way to enjoy rice on the go, but the rice serves to preserve various savory fillings. Wrapped in seaweed (nori), and best eaten at room temperature, onigiri are the perfect food to pack for a take-along lunch, whether you’re a Japanese fisherman headed out to the open sea or a four-year-old destined for a grueling day of preschool. Or, you know, someone in between. Say, perhaps, a working mom who likes a tasty, healthy, and neat mid-day treat.
While they’re sometimes found in the shape of an actual ball or in cutesie forms such as kitties and bunny rabbits, around here, triangular onigiri is the most common. Sharp-edged and compact, these three-sided wonders hide one of many delectable surprises inside the simple looking rice. From salted, cooked salmon to julienned and marinated seaweed, from salted plum to tempura shrimp, pate, or even American-style tuna salad, you can fill your onigiri with just about anything you like.
Traditionally, onigiri is made with plain, rice seasoned only with a bit of salt. It may be blasphemous, but I like to use sushi rice—rice that’s been seasoned with salt, sugar, and rice vinegar—for extra tastiness. Whether you choose to use plain or sushi rice, make sure you use a short or medium grain Japanese (japonica) rice of the type that is commonly used for sushi and rinse it well before cooking.
Shaping the onigiri is likely the most daunting part for newbies, but don’t fret, it’s easier than it looks. You can purchase inexpensive, easy-to-use onigiri molds that come in fun shapes from basic triangles to flowers or assorted animals. The Japanese food blog JustHungry.com provides simple instructions for foolproof onigiri shaping using a teacup and plastic wrap (you’ll also find instructions there for making awesomely bright onigiri using vegetables like beets, carrots, and peas to color the rice).
No matter how you shape, fill, or season your onigiri, all you really need to know is that these compact rice balls are adorable little self-contained meals made of delicious. Tidier and far less boring than a sandwich, they’re the ideal snack to take to work, to school, or to the park. Sneak them into the movies or bring them along for a long plane, train, or bus ride.
Traditionally, onigiri are made with plain rice, but I like to use sushi rice seasoned with rice vinegar, sugar, and salt just because, well, it’s even more delicious. Fill your onigiri with whatever fillings you desire. See below for a list of ideas.
For the rice:
2 cups short grain Japanese (japonica) rice
3 cups water
For the sushi rice seasoning (optional):
1/3 cup rice vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
For the rice balls:
8 sheets roasted seaweed (nori) or onigiri wrappers* (optional)
One or more fillings (enough to fill 8 balls, which is about ½ to 3/4 cup)
Rinse the rice in cold water at least 5 times and drain well in a fine-mesh sieve. If using a rice cooker, simply add the rice and cold water to the rice cooker and cook according to the cooker’s instructions. To cook the rice in a pot on the stovetop, place the rice in a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Add the cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a very low simmer, cover the pot, and simmer for about 20 minutes, until all of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender.
If using the sushi rice seasoning, while the rice is cooking, combine the vinegar, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan and heat over medium heat, stirring, just until the sugar is dissolved. When the rice is finished cooking, stir the vinegar mixture into it until well combined.
Shape your onigiri while the rice is still warm. If using a mold, wet the inside of the mold and, using wet hands, fill it about halfway with rice. Make an indentation in the middle of the rice with your thumb and add your filling, about a tablespoon or so. Add more rice on top to fill the mold. Place the top half of the mold on top and press down gently. Remove the top of the mold and invert the bottom half over a plate. Press down on the button in the middle to help the onigiri slide out. Wet the inside of the mold again and repeat the process until you have used up all of your rice and filling or have made the desired number of onigiri.
If shaping the onigiri by hand, use wet hands and shape into a ball, make an indentation in the middle, fill with about 1 tablespoon of filling, and close up the hole with a bit more rice. Leave it in a ball shape, or use your hands to form it into a triangular shape, if desired.
Japanese markets carry roasted seaweed onigiri wrappers. They come individually wrapped in plastic so that they stay fresh and crunchy. Leave the plastic wrap on them, wrap them around your rice balls, and follow the handy instructions for removing the plastic and wrapping your onigiri just before eating. You can also just use regular nori sheets cut into strips, if desired. Wrap in plastic wrap or in a plastic-wrapped onigiri-shaped nori sheet. Onigiri can be stored at room temperature for several hours. If you wish to store them longer than that, store in the refrigerator and bring to room temperature before serving.
To serve, remove the plastic wrap from the nori wrapper and wrap the onigiri in the nori.
Onigiri Filling Suggestions:
Onigiri are intended to be kept at room temperature for several hours, so using raw fish as a filling is not recommended (of course, if you’re planning to eat your onigiri soon after preparing them, feel free to disregard this advice). Here are just a few of my favorite fillings. Be creative and dream up your own fillings, or simply use leftovers from last night’s dinner.
Salted and baked or broiled salmon, mackerel, or other fish
Assorted Japanese pickles (available at Japanese markets)
Ika sansai (Japanese spicy squid salad, available at many Japanese markets)
Tuna salad (traditional or made with wasabi paste, Sriracha, or other ingredients)
Umeboshi (pickled plums, available at Japanese markets)
Eggs (hard boiled with wasabi paste or scrambled with a bit of soy sauce)
Lox and thinly sliced green onions
Smoked trout with wasabi paste or prepared horseradish
Leftover fried chicken, chopped
Chicken liver pate
Barbecued pork, diced or shredded