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How to Make Onigiri (Japanese Rice Balls) Any Which Way

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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, where they understand the importance of rice as snack. Balls of cooked rice called onigiri or omusubi are sold in convenience stores, elaborate food halls in department store basements, and specialty take-out restaurants. Savory and utensil-free snacks, they come in a variety of flavors and designs (some are even shaped like animals!).

Photo by Julia Gartland

But if you're without easy onigiri access (E.O.A., as I call it), you can make them at home, with none of the equipment you need for sushi-making: After choosing how to season your rice and what (if anything) to use as a filling, it's only a matter of shaping the two components into balls and wrapping them into neat little packages.

Here's how to do it in 5 steps.

1. Make a pot of sushi rice.

You may be tempted to use brown rice or sprouted rice or Arborio rice, but now's not the time: The slight stickiness of the sushi rice provides the natural glue that holds the onigiri together. One cup of dry sushi rice will make approximately 3 cups of cooked rice, which yields about 8 to 10 pool ball-sized onigiri.

To prepare the sushi rice:

  1. Place the dry rice in a colander and run it under cool water until the water runs clear.
  2. Drain well, then add to a pot with 1 1/4 cups of water.
  3. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and simmer for 20 minutes without opening the lid.
  4. Remove the pan from the heat and let it stand, covered, for 10 minutes before fluffing with a fork.

If making sushi rice is challenging for you (it is for me!), use a rice cooker. Be sure not to make the rice too far in advance, as it should be warm and moist when you work with it.

Photo by Julia Gartland

2. Then season it.

When it comes down to it, onigiri is about 80% rice, which makes it extra important that your rice has, you know, taste. To start, you'll want to moisten the rice with a bit of liquid.

It's standard to add a couple of tablespoons or so of rice vinegar (increase this quantity if you've made more than 3 cups of cooked rice) to sushi rice, but for something more exciting, try replacing or complementing that with...

  • Soy sauce or tamari (spiked with Sriracha for heat)
  • Sesame oil
  • Fish sauce
  • Nuoc cham (equal parts lime juice and fish sauce, sweetened with sugar and spiced wih garlic, chile, and roasted red pepper flakes)
  • Curry paste

And these textural, non-liquid ingredients will safeguard against an all-mush experience:

  • Sesame seeds (I like black sesame seeds for some color variation)
  • Minced scallions or chives or black or roasted garlic
  • Finely chopped parsley or cilantro
  • Furikake
  • Seaweed that's been soaked and chopped

Don't add anything too large or clunky (like sprouts or nuts or mung beans), as they'll interfere with the grains of rice sticking together.

Photo by Julia Gartland

3. Now dream up your filling.

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
  • Katsuobushi (bonito flakes) moistened with soy sauce
  • Finely chopped 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
  • Flaked salmon
  • Tuna salad

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.

4. Time to 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.

Photo by Julia Gartland

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 your 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 but have no desire for an animal-shaped mold? Pack your rice into a 1/2-cup measure lined with plastic wrap.

Photos by Julia Gartland, Julia Gartland

5. Overachieve.

Your onigiri are great as is. Wrap them in plastic wrap for your ride on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto (or Times Square to Grand Army Plaza).

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.

Or, use a pair of kitchen scissors to cut out strips of nori. Wrap them around the circumference of the onigiri, like a seatbelt (and a handy place to put your hands as you snack) or around the bottom of the ball, like a bucket seat for the rice. If you've used the panda mold to shape your onigiri, you might as well use nori cut-outs 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. Cook until a light crust forms, flipping to cook all sides and brushing with soy sauce as you go.

Tags: japanese, sushi rice, onigiri, snacks