Did you know that Onigiri is the best selling food in Japanese convenience stores? I guess it is because they are delicious, convenient and nutritious compared to other fast foods. This is the ultimate and only guide you will ever need including types of rice, fillings, seasonings, shapes, wrapping, storing, and tips to make them just right.
What is Onigiri?
Onigiri also is known as omusubi in Japan and is simply Japanese rice balls. They are a cooked plain Japonica short-grain rice made into a triangle shape (usually) wrapped with nori seaweed. However, there are many different rice balls in terms of fillings and seasonings. They are easy to make at home and also readily available to eat from convenience stores and supermarkets in Japan for lunch or a snack on the go.
The Best Rice for Onigiri
The best rice for making onigiri is short-grain Japonica “Koshihikari”. This Japanese rice is available from Japanese/Asian grocery stores and also you can get this rice from major supermarkets in Australia. The brand is Sun rice. Now because this type of rice also used for making sushi, it may be labeled sushi rice.
Koshihikari rice is best for making rice balls because it absorbs the optimal amount of water which helps the rice to stick together. It is also important to cook rice as the Japanese do. Read here how to cook rice the Japanese way. Process photo 5 & 6.
Japanese rice balls can simply be seasoned with just salt then wrapped with nori seaweed. However Japanese love rice balls with rice seasonings Furikake. There are a variety of seasonings that can be mixed into cooked rice unlike Furikake which is sprinkled onto the rice. You can purchase them from Japanese/Asian grocery stores or online stores.
Just add the seasoning and mix into hot freshly cooked rice, then leave for a while. The dry seasoning ingredients will be steamed by residual heat in the hot rice and becomes soft and delicious.
Another way to make rice balls more flavorful and delicious is to fill them with any of the following: Umeboshi pickled plum, salted and grilled salmon, Salmon Soboro, grilled cod roe, Kelp tsukudani (Kelp boiled in sweetened soy sauce), Bonito flakes, Tuna Mayonnaise (called Tuna Mayo), etc.
In this post, I have included rice balls recipes of Umeboshi, salted plum, Tuna mayonnaise, and Soy sauce flavored Bonito Flakes in the recipe card. So read further down to learn how to make them.
If you visit any convenience store in Japan there are many different and unique fillings you can find. So just let your imagination run wild and create your own original Onigiri recipe!
How to Make the Rice Balls
The freehand method
Basically, grab a handful of cooked rice and squeeze into balls (any shape) with your hands. However, you need to choose good rice. If the rice is too dry and does not hold moisture, it will not stick together. You need to wet your hands before you handle cooked rice or use cling wrap. Then shape the rice balls with your hands while you are squeezing.
Ok, if you are like my daughter and not confident in shaping onigiri freehand, there are molds available to help. When you use a mold, you also need to wet the mold before you put rice in it to avoid the rice sticking to it. Onigiri Molds are available from Japanese/Asian grocery stores or online.
50 Shapes of Onigiri
Ok, well not 50, but they don’t have to be triangular! You probably have seen the triangular ones, though there are other shapes as well. Commonly there are three; triangular, round, and cylindrical (called Tawara).
This shape is probably the easiest to make. Wet your hands so that the rice will not stick to your them, and shape it into round balls. You can make it like a glove or squash it a bit to make it flat round. You see this round shape of Takikomi gohan and Sekihan azuki beans rice into this shape at convenience stores in Japan.
Shaping into triangles maybe a little more difficult. Initially, you squeeze the rice the same as for shaping round rice balls. Then put it in one palm and use the other hand to form one triangular corner. Then keep rotating the rice ball on the palm while you squeeze the next corner every rotation.
Tawara (round cylinder) shape
This shape is not as difficult as the triangular one actually. Start with a round shape and then squeeze into a cylinder shape. This shape is known as Tawara which means straw bales.
Wrapping Rice Balls
We want to keep the nori sheet as fresh as possible. Have you ever bought Japanese rice balls wrapped with a rather complicated looking plastic wrap that separates the nori seaweed sheets? Rice ball Film Wrap are available online or you can make them at home. The instructions are in the FAQ below.
Tips to make delicious Onigiri
- Choose the correct rice -> Japonica short-grain rice, such as Koshihikari or labeled as sushi rice
- Cook rice like Japanese do
- Use mold for an easy way to make or use cling wrap.
Rice dishes that can be shaped into balls
- Sekihan azuki bean rice
- Sekihan with chestnuts
- Ketchup rice
- Takikomi gohan
- Hijiki Rice
- If you wrap the ketchup rice with a thinly fried egg, you can make Omurice onigiri. This is actually sold in convenience stores in Japan.
How to store
Unlike convenience stores’ rice balls, homemade rice balls do not contain any preservatives. Also if you make them with your hands without using cling wrap, even though you wash your hands before you make the rice balls, it is recommended to eat the rice balls on the same day. Contact with your hands will introduce germs which shorten the life of the rice.
If you choose to wrap the onigiri with cling wrap instead of the nori seaweed, it increases the life of the rice. You can keep them in a ziplock freezer bag. It stores in the freezer for a month.
Q: Why is Onigiri triangular?
A: It is said that the ancient Japanese deified the mountain and made rice into a mountain shape (triangle) in order to confer the power of the god.
Q: What is the difference between Sushi & Onigiri?
A: The main difference is whether the cooked rice is seasoned with sweet vinegar or not. Even though both use the same type of rice, sushi uses vinegared rice, and Onigiri is made from plain cooked rice seasoned or filled with various ingredients.
Q: How to make film wraps like the one you purchase from convenience stores?
A: Here is the instruction. You need aluminum foil and masking tape. Also, see the video.
- Stick masking tape vertically over the center of the aluminum foil on the kitchen bench or on a flat surface.
- Flip it over and place a nori sheet on the center vertically.
- Fold both sides of aluminum foil in.
- Spread a sesame seed oil (or olive oil) over the aluminum foil.
- Place onigiri on the top half of the aluminum foil.
- Fold the bottom half over the onigiri to cover the onigiri.
- Secure the top with the end of the masking tape to seal it.
Q: What dishes can you serve this with?
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Japanese Rice Balls Onigiri
- 1.5cup/310g rice (uncooked) *1
- 1 nori sheets seaweed sheets *2
- 1 seeded umeboshi pickled plum
- 2 tbsp of bonito flakes *or 2.5g if you have a kitchen scale
- 1/2 tsp soy sauce
- 1/2 tsp mirin
- 95 g tinned tuna *3
- 1.5 tbsp Japanese mayonnaise
- 1 piece Salted salmon *4
- Cook the rice according to your rice cooker or if you don’t have a rice cooker, follow the instructions here. *5
- Transfer the cooked rice to a separate bowl to cool it down. I used a Japanese wooden bowl*6 for sushi making.
- Prepare all the fillings that you are going to use and set aside. *7 see some suggestions
- I used Umeboshi (pickled plum), Okaka (bonito flakes), and Tuna. For Umeboshi, deseed the plums then divide the flesh into three chunks. For Okaka, place bonito flakes into a small mixing bowl and combine with soy sauce and mirin. For Tuna, drain the brine or olive oil and mix with 1 tbs mayonnaise.
- Prepare seaweed sheet (nori). ＊8
- Place cling wrap over a rice bowl.
- Place 1/6 of the cooked rice ( 3/4 cup or 120g) over the centre of the cling wrap and make a well.
- Put about 1tsp of umeboshi (or any fillings of your choice) on the centre of the rice then cover with the rice around.
- Wrap the cling wrap over the rice and squeeze and mould the rice into a triangle shape with your hands.
- Remove the cling wrap and cover the bottom of the rice triangle with a nori sheet and set aside.
- Repeat the same steps as above to use rest of the rice with other fillings that you prepared.
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