Japanese

Onigiri Is a Perfect, Pocketable Snack

...one that won't get soggy on the Shinkansen (or MTA).

January  7, 2020
Photo by Sarah Jampel

We think of sandwiches, granola bars, and muffins as great on-the-go snacks. But rice? In most cities in the U.S., you'd be hard-pressed to find a commuter snacking on rice (unless it's puffed and in the form of a cereal bar).

The same is not true in Japan—balls of cooked rice called onigiri or omusubi are sold in convenience stores, elaborate food halls in department store basements, and specialty takeout restaurants. Savory and utensil-free snacks, they come in a variety of flavors and designs—some are even shaped like animals!—and wrapped in a sleeve of crisp seaweed (thus, napkin-free, too).

Common fillings include flaked tuna or salmon, umeboshi (pickled plum), and okaka (bonito flakes simmered in a sake-spiked sweet soy). Though sold cheaply and ubiquitously, covenience-store onigiri are packed in special packaging that preserves their ideal texture. By following a careful set of instructions, the eater peels away strips of plastic to remove the barrier between crisp seaweed and moist rice. No soggy rice balls here!

But if you're without easy onigiri access (E.O.A., as I call it), you can make them at home—no special equipment required. After making a perfect pot of rice and deciding what (if anything) to use as a filling, it's only a matter of mounding the two together, and packing your onigiri for a ride on the Shinkansen (or subway ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan). Here's how to do it in five steps:


How to Make Onigiri

Photo by James Ransom

1. Make a perfect pot of rice

You may be tempted to use any old rice that you have in the pantry, but unfortunately, now's not the time. The starchy stickiness unique to Japanese short-grain rice provides the natural glue that holds the onigiri together. Japanese white or brown sushi rice is what you’re after here. One cup of dry sushi rice will make approximately 3 cups of cooked rice, which yields about 8 to 10 pool ball–sized onigiri. While we do want a pot of rice that’s slightly sticky, we don’t want one that’s mushy—hence, the importance of washing rice properly.

  1. Place 1 cup of dry sushi rice in a colander set inside a large bowl. Run cool water over the rice until the rice is completely covered.
  2. Swish the rice around the water, in the colander, with your hand. The water should be pretty cloudy—lift the colander containing the rice out of the bowl, and discard this starchy water (or, use it to water your plants!).
  3. Repeat this—filling the bowl, swishing the rice, and draining the water—five or six times, or until the water runs completely clear.
  4. Once the water is completely clear, let the rice drain in the colander for at least five minutes (or up to thirty, if you have time). We’ve been introducing water gently, though quickly, into the rice, and need to let the excess drain out. This is so the rice grains will be able to accept water, when steaming, without exploding.
  5. Add the drained rice to a stockpot (or rice pot!), along with 1 1/4 cups water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and simmer for 12 to 14 minutes without opening the lid. Peek under the lid to see if all the water has been absorbed; if not, return the lid and let the rice continue cooking for another few minutes.
  6. Remove from heat and let it stand, covered, for 10 minutes before fluffing the grains with a fork.

If making sushi rice is challenging for you (it is for me!), use a rice cooker. Wash and drain as detailed above in steps 1 through 3, before transferring the rice to the insert of your rice cooker. The amounts of dry rice to water required may vary depending on your rice cooker, so just be mindful of that. If your rice cooker came with a rice paddle, fluff the grains by cutting a deep “X” into your pot of cooked rice; then, by scooping from the bottom up, fluff each quadrant individually before fluffing the pot as a whole. Select the Keep Warm function on your cooker, while you prepare the fillings.

Photo by Julia Gartland

2. Consider seasoning the rice

When it comes down to it, onigiri is about 80 percent rice, which makes it extra important that your rice has, you know, taste. If you made a perfect pot of fluffy rice—which you did—the chewy, distinct grains will be tasty enough.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“circular rice balls generally are for when you want to wrap it in nori and eat it later. triangular are for when you want it wrapped in fresh nori. some people say that onigiri are triangular and omusubi are circular. but in all honestly it really doesn't matter. it has been said that a triangular onigiri was made at first to resemble the shape of a mountain. the mountains being where the traditional japanese shinto gods and spirits lived, making your onigiri in that shape was thought to lend a but of the spirits strength to your food. my friends mother used to make us circular shaped omusubi all the time and we would take them to the mountains to eat while on lunch break from snowboarding. not once did anyone tell me you shouldn't eat circular shaped ones because they're for funerals. and trust me, everyone would jump at the chance to tell a fluent foreigner that they're doing something wrong in japan. so either this information is quite outdated or it was a very localized tradition. either way, rice balls rule and as i always tell people, they're like japanese pb&j's!! if you live in LA, be sure to yelp SUNNY BLUE. rice ball central!!”
— Yosh B.
Comment

But, if you’d like to remix the classic, you can get creative, and moisten the rice with a liquid that might complement your desired filling. Some ideas to get you started:

  • Soy sauce or tamari (spiked with sriracha for heat), to go with sweet corn
  • Toasted sesame oil, to go with okaka
  • Fish sauce, to go with scallions and a mini Thai omelet
  • Nước chấm (equal parts lime juice and fish sauce, sweetened with sugar and spiced with garlic, chile, and red pepper flakes), to go with ground pork and minced cilantro
  • Yuzu kosho, to go with chopped, raw tuna
Photo by Julia Gartland

Avoid adding anything too large or clunky (like sprouts or nuts or mung beans), as they'll interfere with the grains of rice sticking together. These textural, non-liquid ingredients will safeguard against an all-mush experience:

  • Sesame seeds (I like black sesame seeds for some color variation)
  • Minced alliums, like scallions, chives, or black or roasted garlic
  • Finely chopped herbs, like parsley or cilantro
  • Seaweed that's been soaked and chopped
  • Relatively dry and non-mushy, small bits of vegetables—like corn kernels!

3. Play around with fillings

You don't have to add a filling to the middle of the onigiri (especially if you've been ambitious in step 2), but it makes for a more substantial snack. It also gives you the opportunity to incorporate the chunkier, more flavorful ingredients that couldn't be mixed directly into the rice. Try to balance the seasonings you've already added (sweet potato if you've added spice; tuna if you've seasoned with fish sauce), while avoiding any ingredients or mixtures that are watery or greasy. And if you'll be keeping your onigiri at room temperature for many hours, stick with pickled and preserved ingredients that won't go bad.

Fillings, both traditional and nontraditional, can include any (or a combination of any) of the following:

  • Pitted umeboshi (pickled plums)
  • Pickled mustard greens
  • Okaka, bonito flakes simmered in a sake-spiked sweet soy
  • Finely chopped and sautéed shiitake mushrooms
  • Miso paste mixed with scallions
  • Mashed sweet potato, carrot, or squash
  • Pickled burdock root
  • Chopped omelette or scrambled egg
  • Hijiki or other seaweeds
  • Mashed and salted avocado
  • Cooked (or hot-smoked) salmon, flaked
  • Canned tuna, flaked and mixed with a bit of mayo

Don't hesitate to add flavor—in the form of red pepper flakes or soy sauce or more of anything you've already mixed into the rice—at this stage, too.

Finally, make sure to finely chop any of the larger ingredients (sautéed mushrooms, for example) and to mash and mix well, as each onigiri can only accommodate a small amount of filling.

Photo by Julia Gartland

4. shape and squeeze

At the ready, have your seasoned rice, your filling, a plate for finished onigiri, and a bowl of generously salted water. Dipping your hands in salt water as you shape each onigiri—a tip from Lucky Peach's 101 Easy Asian Recipes—prevents the rice from sticking to your hands while simultaneously adding another layer of seasoning.

Wet your hands with salt water, then scoop up 1/3 to 1/2 cup of rice (it's fine to guesstimate, but you will need at least this much if you're adding filling). Make an indentation in the middle of the rice and place 1 to 2 tablespoons of the filling inside.

Photo by Julia Gartland

Patch a bit more rice over the filling, then compact the rice into a sphere. As you get more comfortable working with the rice, you can try other shapes, like cylinders and pyramids. If you're really looking to up your bento game, invest in a panda-shaped rice mold, even if Marie Kondo wouldn't approve.

Don't want to work with your hands nor have a desire for an animal-shaped mold? Pack your rice into a 1/2-cup measure—or even the wells in a muffin tin—lined with plastic wrap.

Photo by Julia Gartland

5. Prepare your onigiri for a day of traveling

Wrap each with a sheet of toasted nori, so they don’t stick to each other (and to your hands later). If you want to make them extra special, however, you can roll them in sesame seeds or wrap them in salted lettuce or shiso leaves.

  • Use a pair of kitchen scissors to cut the nori. Wrap smaller strips of nori around the circumference of the onigiri, like a seatbelt (and a handy place to put your hands as you snack).
  • Or, simply cut a large square of nori into two rectangles, and use each to cup the bottoms of the balls, like bucket seats for the rice.
  • If you've used the panda mold to shape your onigiri, you might as well use nori cutouts to form eyes and ears.
Photo by Julia Gartland

If you'll be eating right away and want something warm and slightly crispy, turn your onigiri into yaki (meaning fried or grilled) onigiri. Broil them (Heidi Swanson makes a paste of nut butter, miso, and olive oil, spreads it on her onigiri, and broils them until the mixture is toasty and melty), or cook in a hot cast-iron skillet with some oil and soy. Cook until a light crust forms, flipping to cook all sides and basting as you go.


What's your favorite onigiri filling? Tell us below in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • AliceK
    AliceK
  • Anjani
    Anjani
  • Arthur J Goldman
    Arthur J Goldman
  • Änneken
    Änneken
  • Malia
    Malia
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.

18 Comments

AliceK January 12, 2020
Another easy shape is a short cylinder with nori wrapped around the middle. A small pyramid of three of these is supposed to represent hay bales, so would be nice for the fall season, maybe with a filling of kabocha squash.
 
Anjani January 12, 2020
Omusubi are everywhere in Hawaii. My grandmother made the best, but here are some great variations to try: http://archives.starbulletin.com/2002/06/19/features/index.html
 
Arthur J. January 12, 2020
I am amazed that a simple ball of rice can elicit such complex emotions. Ah, one should never underestimate the power of savory food. Great article and many thoughtful comments.
 
Änneken January 2, 2017
These are so much fun to make!! Next time I'll add more rice vinegar to the rice though...it didn't shine through as much. For the fillings I only had avocado and tuna on hand so I used that. Very, very good! Thanks for sharing this recipe.
 
Malia February 16, 2016
I make onigiri (we call it musubi in my family) of all shapes many days a week, so I'm glad to have you introducing some more people to them!

I'm going to suggest you pack your rice a little tighter to make sure your onigiri doesn't fall apart. The triangular-ish one on the plate is a prime candidate. :)

I've seen this in other western tuturials, too, but you can't add vinegar and still call it onigiri--adding vinegar puts the rice in the sushi category. (See Maki's thorough Onigiri FAQ)

Also, the easiest and least messy way to make onigiri is to put form it inside plastic wrap. It saves me so much time and burns my hands less! See photo tutorial here: http://www.justhungry.com/2007/01/onigiri_omusubi_revisited_an_e.html


 
Yosh B. February 11, 2016
actually whether a riceball is triangular or circular or called an onigiri or a musubi really depends on what part of japan you are in. circular rice balls generally are for when you want to wrap it in nori and eat it later. triangular are for when you want it wrapped in fresh nori. some people say that onigiri are triangular and omusubi are circular. but in all honestly it really doesn't matter. it has been said that a triangular onigiri was made at first to resemble the shape of a mountain. the mountains being where the traditional japanese shinto gods and spirits lived, making your onigiri in that shape was thought to lend a but of the spirits strength to your food. my friends mother used to make us circular shaped omusubi all the time and we would take them to the mountains to eat while on lunch break from snowboarding. not once did anyone tell me you shouldn't eat circular shaped ones because they're for funerals. and trust me, everyone would jump at the chance to tell a fluent foreigner that they're doing something wrong in japan. so either this information is quite outdated or it was a very localized tradition. either way, rice balls rule and as i always tell people, they're like japanese pb&j's!! if you live in LA, be sure to yelp SUNNY BLUE. rice ball central!!
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. February 11, 2016
Really interesting about the triangle onigiri—thanks for sharing!
 
Anjani January 12, 2020
The rounded shapes have been a no-no in Hawaii, where I grew up, for as long as I remember. People there generally stick to triangles...
 
Megan W. February 10, 2016
I just made a huge batch of these and took pictures for my blog. I've been craving them for years and hadn't had them since I lived in Japan (almost 18 years ago now), where they were my staple at swim meets. I don't know why it took me so long to try and make them. Thanks for all the tips and tricks!
 
Lina C. February 8, 2016
I have a super easy/lazy way to make them. Take half a sheet of nori, place on a plate, add hot rice straight out of the rice cooker and lay a thin layer (1/2 to 2/3 inch or so) in a diamond shape it in the nori. Place any filling in the center, fold in half and close the sides either trimming the extra nori or folding it over. It also makes it easier to eat with less stickiness and better filling containment.
 
Kayla February 8, 2016
I love to toast them in some sesame oil!! I need to eat a pound of these RIGHT. NOW.
 
Jona @. February 8, 2016
Loving this article! I love onigiri, I used to buy similar rice balls, as they were called in Beijing. I have always wanted to try to recreate them even though I think it's maybe one of those things you could never make as good. I might try salmon with a bit of homemade mayo :)
 
Rosin S. February 8, 2016
onigiri would never be in a round or spherical ball shape as it is considered bad luck in Japanese culture. Though you may not be superstitious (of course not all Japanese are superstitious), you should be respectful of the food culture from which you borrow this recipe. Onigiri is, yes, delicious and such a portable snack, but for others this food has meaning and a history. Round onigiri is customarily eaten at funerals, which is why it's considered bad luck to eat it otherwise. If you're going to borrow food/recipes from a culture that may not be yours--no matter how tasty or convenient--perhaps some more research is in called for.
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. February 8, 2016
Thank you very much for bringing this to my attention, Rosin. The instructions are meant to be an adaptation, but I really appreciate knowing that onigiri would never be round in Japan and that the shape is considered bad luck (it's something I hadn't noticed before and that I didn't come across in my research on onigiri).
 
Fredrik B. February 8, 2016
You do realise that rice rolled in very much spherical ball shapes is older than the use of chopsticks, right?
 
Mollyh February 8, 2016
When I lived in Tokyo, my Japanese boyfriend and his Japanese mother made spherical oniguri every week with no concern for the shape ...
 
Rosin S. February 8, 2016
Hi Sarah, thanks for acknowledgment and I really apologize for the snarky-ness (I'm usually not so rage-y/up-in-arms about these things). I love Japanese cuisine and really appreciate that you wrote this piece on onigiri. I truly believe that we all learn a lot about culture through food, it's a direct communication of history, storytelling, and so on. So, I think when I read this initially and saw that perhaps that aspect (the culture and history--and yes, maybe the outdated superstitions) was left out, I reacted a bit harshly there. So, again sorry for the way I commented and thanks for the smart recipe.
 
Megan W. February 10, 2016
Thanks for sharing Rosin. When I lived in Japan I never did see a spherical rice ball but never knew the reason. It was always shaped in triangles and when I finally tried making them myself I shaped it into a ball first and then made it into a triangle because it felt wrong. After all these years, it's finally nice to know the reason!