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Onigiri 101: How to Make Japanese Rice Balls

The perfect, portable snack that won't get soggy on the Shinkansen (or MTA).

March 12, 2014

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

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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—balls of cooked rice called onigiri or omusubi are sold in convenience stores, elaborate food halls in department store basements, and specialty takeout restaurants. Onigiri are a version of Japanese rice balls 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. These savory and utensil-free snacks 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).

While the Japanese 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 using salted salmon, sesame seeds, and sticky short-grain rice. With the addition of some nori 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.

Traditional fillings:

A traditional onigiri recipe calls for a filling of cod roe, pickled plums, or teriyaki salmon. But don’t let the fun stop there. For other variations, try smoked salmon and scallions, sautéed kabocha squash, or Trent Pierce's Miso-Creamed Kale. Less traditional but equally delicious fillings include pickled mustard greens, okaka (bonito flakes simmered in a sake-spiked sweet soy, sautéed shiitake mushrooms, miso scallions, mashed sweet potato or squash, pickled burdock root, scrambled egg, hijiki or other seaweeds, mashed and salted avocado, and canned tuna mixed with a touch 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.

Toppings:

Onigiri is just as much about the fillings as it is the toppings. You’ll need seaweed (sushi-style nori), black and white sesame seeds, and shichimi togarashi (a Japanese spice blend made up of ground sesame seeds, orange peel, and chili pepper). 

Instructions:

Onigiri can be made with sushi rice or any short-grain white rice seasoned with furikake or rice flavoring. Cook a pot of sushi rice on the stovetop or using a rice cooker, and keep the rice slightly warm. Four 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. Squeeze the rice to remove any excess water and then 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. You can also use plastic wrap. I like flattened triangles because they are easy to bite into.

At this point, you can roll your rice ball in some sesame seeds, sprinkle with shichimi togarashi, or wrap the onigiri with 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. You can also make yaki onigiri, which are grilled Japanese rice balls that are pleasingly crispy.

Serve with good-quality soy sauce for dipping. 

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

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Anna Hezel

Written by: Anna Hezel

30 Comments

christiangirl August 13, 2020
looks yummy!
 
Mazz September 27, 2016
I was told at a shop that sells these, that you don't want refrigerate them. They say the rice gets hard and, and that makes sense, but it freaks me out a bit. Especially since I want to put Cooked salmon in them. will wrapping them tightly and putting them in the fridge overnight ruin them?
 
Solveig M. September 7, 2017
I've always found them refrigerated in Japan?
 
Kira M. November 8, 2015
What about chicken as a filling? Has anyone tried that? I might.
 
Aaron K. July 10, 2019
I believe they would be good with chicken in them.
 
olivia_poska March 18, 2020
I make them with yakitori chicken. My daughter loves them!
 
Alisha G. December 12, 2014
this is awesome, I've only found one type of japanese rice balls......and now knowing that I can use different kinds of fillings for these, that made me happy :D
 
kai March 18, 2014
check out cookpad! although they're waaay too cute to be eaten...
I dunno how Japanese people can make such cute creations and gobble them without a thought.

https://en.cookpad.com/search/charaben
 
Kayla March 16, 2014
Excellent, excellent choice for this week! If anyone else is interested in reading more about onigiri, I urge you to head over to Maki's blog at justhungry.com and justbento.com... I'm a huge fan of her easy take on Japanese cuisine. She's done multiple pieces on onigiri. You should check them out!


http://justhungry.com/2003/12/obento.html
http://justbento.com/handbook/bento-basics/onigiri-omusubi-faq
http://justbento.com/handbook/bento-basics/onigiri-on-parade-guide-onigiri-omusubi-rice-ball-shapes-types-and-fun

Will definitely be making this teriyaki salmon this week! Thanks for the inspiration!
 
Author Comment
Anna H. March 18, 2014
Thanks for these links!
 
amymm March 15, 2014
Well shoot. You done did it. Cutest, healthiest, homemade lunch box additions ever. Will try these for kinder lunches!
 
Alice S. March 15, 2014
We ate onigiri all the time when I was growing up; my mother is from Japan. We would put a bit of salt in the water/in our wet hands when forming them. This is plain rice, not sushi (vinegared) rice. My daughter preferred onigiri over sandwiches in her lunch box when she was little.
 
Alice S. March 15, 2014
* (we used plain short grain rice, not sushi rice)
 
Author Comment
Anna H. March 18, 2014
What do you usually put in yours? I'm always wondering about kid-friendly fillings.
 
Alice S. April 22, 2014
Sorry for the delay...a mixture of katsuobushi (dry flaked bonito) and shoyu (soy sauce) was her favorite as a kid.
 
Matt Y. March 13, 2014
This seems like a great lunch idea, but how well do they keep? Can I make a bunch at the start of the week to use as lunch all week? Or do they need to be made fresh daily?
 
Author Comment
Anna H. March 13, 2014
As long as you're not using raw fish as a filling, and as long as you wrap them tightly in some kind of plastic wrap or in an airtight container, they will taste pretty good for a full week.
 
Matt Y. March 18, 2014
Just made these for lunch and they were awesome! (I still need some practice making them less ugly though...) Even better was that my wife shared some with her sixth-grade students who hate everything, and they loved them as well.
 
Author Comment
Anna H. March 18, 2014
That is so awesome to hear!
 
rizzle March 13, 2014
These seem possibly too adorable to eat!
 
Author Comment
Anna H. March 13, 2014
And yet, into my belly they go.
 
yjZuk March 13, 2014
Sweet, love the panda theme. going to make these with my nieces
 
Author Comment
Anna H. March 13, 2014
Cute! You should also check out all of the ninjas and pigs and other little rice ball creatures that are all over Pinterest. Your mind will be blown.
 
Deathandfood March 12, 2014
No vinegar in the rice?
 
Author Comment
Anna H. March 13, 2014
I've read that you don't traditionally add vinegar to the rice for onigiri, but I'd be curious to know why and how it affects the outcome. Anybody else know?
 
Kayla March 16, 2014
It's only because of taste! Once you add sushi vinegar to your japonica rice, it becomes classified as "sushi" in the Japanese culinary view. Still tastes wonderful, though! It obviously doesn't detriment the stickiness at all.
 
HalfPint March 12, 2014
Those pandas would be a welcome addition to any bento box.
 
SallyM March 12, 2014
This is a very cute idea. Thank you. Is there a brown rice sushi rice?
 
HalfPint March 12, 2014
@SallyM, I do believe there is because I've seen brown rice sushi at Whole Foods. Maybe they just use a short grain brown rice and make sushi rice by adding seasoned rice vinegar.
 
Author Comment
Anna H. March 13, 2014
Taking a look at a few recipes for brown rice sushi, it looks like most of the recipes do call for short grain brown rice, as HalfPint suspected. I bet that would achieve the right stickiness/chewiness, but let me know how it goes if you try it!