Thursday, April 26, 2012

Onigiri (おにぎり) / Omusubi (おむすび) - Japanese Rice Balls

To prevent any confusion, let me first state that the terms onigiri and omusubi are completely interchangeable. The names are simply regional, like how some people here use the terms "hot dog" and "weiner" interchangeably. Also, onigiri/omusubi are NOT a form of sushi. The rice used for onigiri is plain rice, lightly salted on the outside, while sushi uses sushi rice, flavored with vinegar, sugar and salt. 

Onigiri is a classic Japanese snack, dating back to the 11th century, available in pretty much any konbini (convenience store). Perfect for travel; cooked rice is formed into a triangle shape and wrapped with nori (dried, toasted seaweed). Often, the onigiri has a salty or sour filling, like umeboshi (pickled plum), shiozake (salted salmon), katsuobushi (dried, shredded bonito) or takuan (pickled daikon radish); this was used as a natural preservative.

Nowadays, onigiri serves as a snack or light meal, and is as ubiquitous in a Japanese bento as a sandwich would be here in a child's lunchbox. 

There is almost ALWAYS a plate of onigiri waiting for me on the kitchen counter when I visit my parents. My mom (who calls them "omusubi") still makes them the old way, shaping the scalding hot rice by hand into the perfect triangle shape. She refuses to use an onigiri mold; I actually own one, but it makes the onigiri WAY too big, so it never gets used, especially since I've now discovered a SUPER easy way to get that classic shape without ruining my hands. There is a restaurant, called Irori Sanzoku (いろり山賊), not far from where my grandparents live, known for their GIGANTIC onigiri. Seriously, they are about the size of a curling stone. I LOVED going there!

You really don't need one of these....
Making onigiri at home is REALLY easy, but there are some considerations to take. You HAVE to use Japanese rice/sushi rice. No other rice like long-grain, jasmine, basmati, etc. will work. If making the onigiri ahead of time, pack your nori separately and simply wrap the onigiri in plastic wrap; leaving the nori on will result in it becoming soggy. 

Onigiri (おにぎり) / Omusubi (おむすび) - Japanese Rice Balls
adapted from Just Hungry

Traditional onigiri is made with piping hot rice; you moisten your hands, sprinkle them with salt, then quickly mold the onigir by cupping your hands. The salt ends up sucking all of the moisture out of your hands, while the hot rice burns them, leaving you with hands that resemble cocktail shrimp.

RIP, sweet Glenn Shadix. I appreciate you letting me Beetlejuice fangirl all over you when I saw you restoring your historic home in Bessemer
This method is MUCH easier on the hands. 

Salt, preferably in a shaker
Water, preferably in a small mister or spray bottle
Nori sheets
Onigiri fillings (here I have used umeboshi)
Small bowl (I use a plastic miso soup bowl and it's the PERFECT size)

Take your bowl and line it with a sheet of plastic wrap, big enough to hang over the edges. Press the plastic down into the bowl.

*You want a good-quality plastic wrap that is sturdy enough to hold up to the weight & heat of the rice, as well as all the molding. I've got NO issue with off-brands/store-brands, but I ALWAYS spend the extra money for Stretch-Tite. I also never cheap out on toilet paper or garbage bags.*

Have all your other supplies nearby.

Lightly mist the inside of the bowl with water.

Sprinkle the inside of the wet bowl with salt, turning the bowl so that the sides get coated as well. Shake out any excess salt.

Add rice to the bowl, filling it loosely.

Using your finger, poke a hole in the center of the rice, about halfway down. If you're worried about the rice being too hot, do what I do and use the end of a wooden spoon.

Fill the hole with your filling, you don't want to overdo the filling; 2 tsp or so is sufficient.

Press the rice over the filling to seal the hole.

Gather up the edges of the plastic wrap and scoop out the rice ball.

Get rid of any excess air by twisting and squeezing the ball; twist the plastic wrap TIGHTLY to form a ball, squeezing as you go. If you want a round onigiri, cool. If you want a triangular one, simply cup your hands together (imagine you're holding a baby bumblebee, like the old children's song) and squeeze, then turn, then squeeze again. 

There is really no good way to describe this in words. Try it and I promise it will make sense.

If you're going to eat the onigiri right away, cover it with nori. Typically I use three sheets of nori; I simply wrap each of the three flat sides with a sheet of nori, positioning the onigiri in the center of the nori, and fold the nori sheet around to cover both sides of the onigiri.

If you're not going to eat the onigiri right away, leave it in the plastic wrap and take the nori with you.
Itadakimasu (いただきます)!!


  1. I absolute love these! I make these all the time but have never been really creative with what to put in the middle. I have heard quite a few people love making the center filing something like a tune fish sandwich. Also, how do you get the Nori to stick? I have tried and keep having issues.

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    1. I never have an issue with the nori sticking, due to the little bit of water that I use when wrapping the onigiri. Also, you HAVE to use Japanese rice for these; the rice itself is more sticky, and helps the nori adhere a bit better.

      That being said, sometimes the nori doesn't want to stick TO ITSELF (like where it overlaps). When that happens, I simply dab a teeny spot of water on the nori, and it sticks perfectly!

      Tuna fish is a GREAT filling; the key is to squeeze out as much of the liquid as possible, or else you'll end up with a soggy onigiri that wants to fall apart on you! I've used leftover pulled pork, leftover roasted chicken, you name it! I find that the key to a good filling is to use something either pretty salty, or strong flavored, as the rice will mute the flavors a pretty good bit :)

  2. What is that on the filling plate beside the pickled radish and bonito flakes?? Is it just some type of nori that is shredded?

    1. Yes and no - it's not nori, but it IS a seaweed, dusted heavily with salt.

  3. Can you suggest some other fillings? I've tried umeboshi and bonito flakes, but then I blank out...

    1. The possibilities are endless! Tuna salad or chicken salad, leftover steak (cut it up, obviously), grilled/steamed salmon, kimchi, pickled mustard greens (or really any type of Asian pickle), seasoned sauteed spinach (squeeze all the liquid out first), you name it!

  4. What is a deep fried onigiri called? I've been searching for the japanese name for deep fried rice patties all week :(

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