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Onigiri 101: How to Make Japanese Rice Balls

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Every other week, Anna Hezel talks about the innovations, decorations, and other quiet touches that make a party memorable.

Today: Everything you need to know about making this food truck treat at home.

Onigiri 101: How to Make Japanese Rice Balls

Onigiri are a type of Japanese rice ball made from sushi rice packed tightly around a salty filling of seafood or vegetables. Compact and practical, these little savory packages have long been a staple of bento boxes and Japanese delis. Recently, they have enjoyed a surge of popularity among food trucks, where they are made fresh and grilled lightly to order.

More: 10 lunches that pack in 5 minutes (or less).

While the food truck variety might set you back $4 or $5 a pop, making onigiri at home is irresistibly economical and easy. For the price of a small piece of fish and a cup of rice, you can create for yourself a full week's worth of lunches. With the addition of some seaweed, a pair of scissors, and a touch of creativity, you can craft all sorts of kid-friendly varieties, ranging from pandas to pigs to ninjas.

If you're in the mood for a warm meal, just toast your onigiri lightly for 2 to 3 minutes per side on a pan brushed with sesame oil. The outer layer of rice will get toasty and golden-brown and a little bit crackly.

Japanese rice balls

Traditional fillings:
- cod roe
- pickled plum
- teriyaki salmon

Variations to try:
- smoked salmon and scallions
- sauteed kabocha squash
- Trent Pierce's Miso-Creamed Kale

- seaweed (sushi-style nori)
- black and white sesame seeds
- shichimi togarashi (a Japanese spice blend made up of ground sesame seeds, orange peel, and chili pepper)

Japanese rice balls

Cook a pot of sushi rice, and keep the rice slightly warm. 4 cups of cooked rice will be enough for about 10 to 12 rice balls. Set a bowl of cold water at your work space so that you can continuously wet your hands as you form the rice balls. This will prevent the rice from sticking to your hands.

Wet your hands and scoop up a small handful of the rice. Flatten the rice into a dense, thin, oblong layer in the palm of your hand. Scoop a small spoonful of the filling into the center of the rice, and gently fold the rice around the filling. Using both hands, pack the rice into a firm ball and then gently press it into whatever shape you'd like. I like flattened triangles because they are easy to bite into.

Japanese rice balls

At this point you can roll your rice ball in some sesame seeds, sprinkle with shichimi togarashi, or wrap a strip of seaweed around it. If you want to be fancy, you can use your kitchen shears to cut little shapes out of the seaweed. Two semicircles, two ovals, a little triangle of a nose, and a pointy little sliver of a mouth gives you a panda.

Photos by Anna Hezel

Tags: diy, how to, onigiri, rice balls, Japanese, snacks, how-to & diy

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