Onigiri is considered Japanese soul food and compared to easy grab ‘n go foods like burritos and hotdogs because they share the same definition for perfect hand-held, walk-about snacks. Onigiri is a rice ball, typically wrapped in seaweed. It was invented before the existence of refrigeration as a way of preserving fresh rice with pickled fillings so it could carry along with people traveling, for soldiers on foot and farmers working in the fields. Onigiri is still one of the most popular snacks in Japan and enjoyed by people of all ages. In some regions of Japan, onigiri is also called omusubi, which is associated with Japanese folklore and specifically refers to the triangle formed onigiri. The rice is squeezed into a “mountain shape” as a symbol and hope to receive the power of God. History shows that travelers carried these triangle shaped snacks with them as a way of requesting safe travels from the spirits who inhabited nature. From what I understand, only this shape is called omusubi. The word onigiri comes from nigirimeshi which translates “to squeeze.” Squeezing is the technique used to form the rice into a shape that binds it together. I was thankful to learn about this because some of the onigiri I made, were definitely NOT triangles.
Onigiri is most often eaten cold or at room temperature, however you can serve them warm by simply toasting your shapes in a pan with sesame oil on medium heat for 5-6 minutes per side. This preparation is called yaki onigiri and we’ve provided directions for this method below.
It takes some practice to get the same perfect little parcels a seasoned onigiri chef creates. As you can see, mine are not perfect, so I’m practicing! With so many shapes to choose from and so many fillings to consider, it’s a fun family activity or one you might consider for a party. There are also onigiri molds you can buy to make the crafting a little easier. I’ve list one below. You can find more on Amazon and in Asian markets.
Here are a few combinations of fillings you can consider:
- Smoked salmon, green onion & tamari
- Sesame tamari ginger marinated tofu & chives (vegan)
- Umeboshi (recipe link below) (vegan)
- Avocado & blister peanut (vegan)
- Teriyaki chicken (chopped) & shichimi togarashi (Japanese 7-spice)
- Sesame sautéed spinach, edamame & hoison (vegan)
- Sweet potato & shallot (vegan)
- Japanese red bean paste (Organic Anko Japanese Red Bean Paste is found in Asian stores and Amazon)
An approximate teaspoon of any filling goes in the center of each form, so you only need very small amounts of each.
Makes 8 -10 pieces
INGREDIENTS FOR ONIGIRI
- 2 C sushi rice (Japanese short grain)
- 2-1/2 C water
- Nori sheets, unseasoned
- Kosher salt
- 1 C toasted sesame seeds (black or white or both)
- Fillings such as salmon, sesame spinach, bean paste, teriyaki chicken or pork, tofu & green onion
- Garnishes such as mint, cilantro, chopped chives, chopped scallions, chili flakes, furikake (Japanese rice seasoning)
- Dipping sauce
Place rice into a medium sized fine sieve and run cold water over it, rubbing the rice between your fingers. Continue to do this until the water runs clear. In a medium size sauce pan, add rice and cover with water. Bring to a boil then cover with lid and reduce heat to low and simmer for approximately 10 minutes or until water has been completely absorbed. Once cooked, remove lid and set aside to cool. Cut nori sheets into one or two-inch wide strips and set aside. Prepare your fillings and garnishes while rice is cooking.
When the rice is cool enough to handle and you have your assembly board set up with fillings, garnishes and cut nori sheets, you can begin. Wet your hands with cold water and a tiny pinch of salt and with 1/3 cup (or more) of rice begin molding your shape in the palm of your hand. Squeezing the rice until it’s in a tight form. This can be a ball, cone, triangle, square, or oval. Once you have a shape, make a dip in the middle of the shape and spoon in 1/2 to 1 whole teaspoon of filling. How much filling you put in will depend on how big your shape is. Because of my skill level at this point, I found that adding just a little more rice to cover the filling was required. If you do this, squeeze your shape again to tighten the additional rice. Add nori to the shape, leaving a bit of the rice showing. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and furikake. Garnish. Continue with the next shape.
Place shapes on a platter, garnish with chopped scallion and serve with dipping sauce (recipe below)
FOR YAKI ONIGIRI
Yaki Onigiri are pan fried rice balls with or without fillings. For yaki onigiri, such as the main photo we shared, we chopped nori and added it to the rice before molding. We love nori and wanted that flavor. By chopping and adding to the rice before molding, the flavor really comes through. You can add nori to one side of your shape, but if you do, you’ll want to only grill the side without nori ~ it does not hold up well when fried.
Yaki onigiri can have any filling you desire OR you can opt to just have plain yaki onigiri. Following the same steps provided above, form your shape and add your filling. In a cast iron skillet on medium heat, add sesame oil. Once warmed, add yaki onigiri shapes and toast for approximately 5 minutes until completely crisp and golden brown. Don’t flip onigiri until completely toasted, but watch carefully so not to burn. If toasting both sides, flip and fry opposite side until golden brown and toasted. When done, brush with sauce and garnish with toasted sesame seeds.
Frying definitely adds another delicious dimension of flavor and texture to the onigiri.
FOR THE DIPPING SAUCE
- 1/4 C tamari or shoyu
- 2 T rice vinegar
- 1 T white sugar or agave
- 1 tsp dark sesame oil
- 1 tsp fresh grated ginger
- 1 T finely chopped scallion
- 1/2 tsp red chili flakes
- To keep onigiri fresh until serving, cover with plastic wrap.
For refrigeration: you can individually wrap onigiri in plastic wrap and then cover with a kitchen towel. You can store up to two days in the refrigerator. Pull out of refrigerator at least 30 minutes before eating to bring onigiri back up to room temp. For yaki onigiri, you can gently warm up in a cast iron pan.
- A good way to identify different rice ball offerings is to garnish each one with a bit of the filling
- If you want to take a peak at the how-to’s of making onigiri, there are many videos on line that show the technique OR you can get molds (see below) to help shape things a little easier
- Onigiri Triangle Mold – You can find an onigiri rice mold on many sites. Amazon has several. One that I may be getting is Choxila Onigiri Stainless Steel Rice Ball Mold
- Umeboshi Recipe: https://pepperandsaltkitchen.com/2020/09/14/umeboshi-pickled-salted-plums/
- Photos of onigiri rice ball shaping were borrowed from Just One Cook