Jan 22, 2023

HOW TOOnigiri, for Gohan on the Go

Onigiri, Japanese rice balls, are a great snack on the go. They’re easy to make, and the varieties are only limited by your imagination.

Jan 22, 2023

Available everywhere, and eaten at any time of day

Onigiri are deeply ingrained in everyday Japanese life and available at convenience stores nationwide. They’re a quintessential quick bite, often eaten for breakfast, or as a part of a simple lunch. At many yakitori bars or izakaya, onigiri are commonly ordered at the end of a night out, as eating rice is also seen as a symbolic way to end a meal.

A tasty treat with a long history, for good reason

While modern onigiri seem to be all about on-the-go convenience, rice balls have a long history in Japan. Predating widespread adoption of chopsticks, rice was formed into cakes, called tonjiki, to make it easier to eat, and simple to pack for travel.

Aspects of everyday food culture that have been prevalent for over a thousand years usually come with good reason, and onigiri are no exception. They’re incredibly easy to make, filling, delicious and cheap. Best of all, onigiri are a fantastic way to use up leftovers. All it takes is a little bit of planning ahead. Next time you fire up your rice cooker, add an extra cup or two of rice, and you’ll be set to make your own onigiri.

Traditional flavors, or maybe something more modern

The only real decision is what to pair the rice with. Traditional onigiri take cues from Japanese cuisine. Some onigiri are shaped around a tasty filling, like umeboshi (pickled plums), mentaiko (spicy cod roe) or even canned tuna mixed with mayonnaise. Other varieties blend the rice together with the filling, like flaked salmon with sesame seeds, or flaked dried fish, such as mackerel. Okinawa is famous for using SPAM in their onigiri, and it’s not uncommon to find dry curry or fried rice onigiri in convenience stores.

Hands on: Making onigiri is simplicity itself

The key to making onigiri is using Japanese rice, famed for its stickiness that allows the rice to hold its shape. Unfortunately, Japanese rice will stick to your hands as well, so it’s important to have a bowl of warm water on your countertop. Keeping your hands wet not only keeps the rice from sticking to your hands, it also adds moisture to the rice, which is especially important if you have to use cold rice, which is usually a little drier than when it’s freshly steamed. 

Make sure to salt the rice lighty before beginning. In fact, plain onigiri, just rice with salt, are also a popular variety. If using cold rice, wet your hands well, and mix the rice and salt, making sure to break up any clumps of rice. Add in your fillings, and form a ball with both hands. Keeping your hands wet, press the ball firmly, like making a snowball, to get the rice to hold its shape. 

If you’d rather avoid getting your hands sticky, many Japanese markets sell plastic molds for making neat triangular onigiri. Even simpler than that, you can lay a square of plastic wrap on your counter, and set a handful of rice in the center. Simply bring the corners together, and twist the plastic wrap tightly, forming your onigiri. It’s not just easy, it gives you a simple way to pack your onigiri to take with you.