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:
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.
- 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.
- 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!).
- Repeat this—filling the bowl, swishing the rice, and draining the water—five or six times, or until the water runs completely clear.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.