Onigiri (おにぎり), or sometimes called Omusubi (おむすび), are Japanese rice balls. They are what I call the magical food of the Japanese. Tender, toothsome rice made portable, they are the classic comfort food for picnics (especially during the sakura viewing), bento lunch boxes, quick grab-and-go snacks, hiking trips, movie snacks, etc.
Growing up in Japan, I have the fondest memories of helping my mom shape freshly cooked rice into triangles and pack them neatly into my bento boxes before running off to school.
What is Onigiri (Omusubi)
Onigiri (おにぎり) are Japanese rice balls made of steamed rice that have been compressed into a triangular, ball, or cylinder shape and are usually wrapped in nori seaweed sheet. They can be flavored lightly with just salt or filled with a variety of fillings.
Onigiri – Omusubi – Nigirimeshi
The word “onigiri” is more commonly used throughout Japan, but it’s also known as nigirimeshi (握り飯) or omusubi (おむすび).
Is Onigiri Sushi?
For the uninitiated, onigiri are sometimes misunderstood as a type of sushi but they are not.
One of the key differences between onigiri and sushi is that onigiri starts from a base of plain steamed rice, while sushi is made of steamed rice seasoned with vinegar, salt, and sugar.
When to Eat Onigiri
Adored by all ages, onigiri prove their importance and popularity in Japanese everyday lives. We make the rice balls for school and work lunches, and for many outdoor activities and events.
In some ways, they are the Japanese idea of energy bars. We snack on onigiri when we need a quick boost of energy and sustenance.
Where to Get Onigiri
Outside of the home, you can literally find the rice balls everywhere: konbini convenience stores, airports, cute cafes, and specialty stores.
Brief History and Its Role in Japanese Culture
Deemed as the very first traveling food, onigiri were invented before the existence of refrigeration as a means to preserve fresh rice longer so it can be brought along to feed travelers, samurai, or soldiers on the road, or farmers in the farm fields.
The method was to fill the rice with a salty or sour ingredient as natural preservatives and lightly compact them into portable food that can be carried along and eaten with hands. To keep the rice safe, salt was first used in making the onigiri.
Today you can find these rice balls in so many varieties and forms, but the basics of making onigiri remain the same.
If you’re an anime or manga (Japanese comics) fan, you have most likely seen the onigiri show up in many storylines of these cultural outputs. The most memorable appearance has to be in a scene in Spirited Away, where a boy named Haku offered Chihiro, the main character, some onigiri in the hope of comforting her. As the young girl took a bite of the rice ball, tears started rolling down her cheeks. It tells the powerful connection between food and home and the emotions involved. As you can see, onigiri means a lot to the Japanese.
For the most basic and comforting onigiri, you’ll need only 2 ingredients. That’s right! All you need is cooked rice and good quality nori seaweed.
- Japanese Short-Grain Rice – Commonly labeled as sushi rice outside of Japan, Japanese short-grain rice is the rice that we use in most Japanese cooking. It gives you the perfect chewy, tender, and slightly sticky texture. I personally recommend Koshihikari. Please do not substitute it with jasmine or any other types of rice as they will fall apart. Wish to learn more about Japanese rice? Read this post.
- Nori Seaweed – This is the same seaweed wrapper that we use to wrap sushi. You can find it at Japanese/Asian grocers, well-stocked grocery stores, or online.
- Optional Fillings – We’ll discuss them below.
Yes, you can fill onigiri with whatever your heart desires, but I’ll share with you some of the most common fillings for onigiri in Japan.
- shake [pronounced as sha-keh] (salted salmon)
- umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum)
- okaka (bonito flakes moistened with soy sauce)
- kombu (simmered kombu seaweed)
- tuna mayo (canned tuna with Japanese mayonnaise)
- tarako (salted cod roe)
- furikake (rice seasonings to sprinkle all over)
Now if you are ready to get creative, look no further than your dinner leftovers. I’ve used my leftovers from Chicken Karaage and Shrimp Tempura to fill my onigiri. Instead of plain steamed rice, you can also use Takikomi Gohan (mixed rice) or Corn Rice.
Onigiri Shapes and Variations
You can make many different shapes of onigiri, and the most common ones are:
- Cylindrical (shape of rice bale)
- Creative – Some home cooks even take their onigiri to another high fashion level by shaping the rice balls into so many cute animals or character-based shapes!
We also enjoy onigiri in these popular variations:
- Onigirazu (Rice Sandwich)
- Yaki Onigiri (Grilled Rice Balls)
There are different ways to wrap the nori around the rice balls. You can cut a sheet of nori into thin strips and wrap the nori around the cylindrical or triangular rice ball shape (this is more like a decoration).
You can also cut the nori sheet in thirds and wrap the rice ball with the nori.
Some prefer to wrap the rice balls when they are warm so the nori will stick to the rice (but it will be soggy/moist) but most people prefer to keep the nori as crisp as possible.
You can buy this onigiri plastic wrapper that allows you to keep the nori crispy until you’re ready to eat (similar to Japanese convenience store-style onigiri).
5 Tips for Making Perfect Onigiri
1. Use freshly cooked rice
I strongly recommend using freshly cooked rice instead of older rice when you make onigiri. Transfer the freshly cooked rice to a baking sheet or sushi oke (hangiri). Let cool just slightly: The rice should be warm when you make onigiri. Always keep the rice and rice balls covered with a plastic or a damp towel so the rice will not dry out quickly.
2. Wet and salt your hands
It’s important to wet your hands with water to prevent the rice from sticking. Prepare a bowl of water next to your working station. Salt both your hands and rub to spread all around. Salting helps to flavor and to preserve the onigiri for a longer time.
3. Give just enough pressure
Your hands should be just firm enough when pressing the onigiri so the rice doesn’t fall apart when you shape them. You don’t want to squeeze the rice too tight. You rotate the rice balls every time you give gentle pressure. After rotating 3-5 times, the rice ball should be in good shape.
4. Identify your rice ball with a filling
If you add a filling, make sure to place a small amount of the filling on the rice ball (such as on a tip of the triangle shape) so you can identify which filling is inside.
5. Wrap the nori before you eat
Wrap the nori seaweed before you serve. Some onigiri shops sell rice balls that are already wrapped in nori so it’s not crispy. Sometimes nori is packed separately and you get to enjoy the crispy nori. We have both styles, so it’s up to your preference.
If you serve onigiri at a party, you can quickly wrap them right before you serve, or serve the rice balls and nori separately and make it optional.
Frequent Asked Questions
Why does my nori get soggy and wet?