Japanese

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

February  8, 2016

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.

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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.

Photo by Julia Gartland
Photo by 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.

14 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! <br /><br />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. :)<br /><br />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 <a href="http://justbento.com/handbook/bento-basics/onigiri-omusubi-faq">Onigiri FAQ</a>)<br /><br />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<br /><br /> <br />
 
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!
 
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.
 
batbean 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!