Onigiri (rice balls)

One of the most convenient of Japanese convenience foods. It's usually rice shaped into a triangle, oval, or sphere with some sort of filling in the middle (typically umeboshi), and wrapped in nori (toasted seaweed).

The shapes and fillings of onigiri are what make them fun - sort of like Play-doh that doesn't taste as nasty. It's also nice for it's lack of formality or tradition - there's not really a "proper" way to eat it, making it hard to accidentally offend anyone for eating it wrong or impolitely. The word "onigiri" literally means "taking hold of with your hands," and that's the only major etiquette rule you need to remember.

Onigiri is a lot like a Japanese version of the sandwich. Sandwiches are easy to eat, easy to make, and everyone has their personal favorite. And when people reminisce about school lunches as a child, it's just as memorable. (being US-born with a sometimes overly-cultural mom, my memories are more of wondering why noone wanted to trade with me (^_^;). Still, mom was on (to) something.)


Onigiri was originally called "tonjiki," and was predominantly consumed by the lower castes, the bread and water of the Heian Era. Also, "yakimusubi" was a meal made of leftover rice, broiled and basted in shoyu. Now, onigiri can be bought at most any 7-11 or Lawson's in Japan, and is one of the more popular Japanese foods for it's price and sandwich-like convenience.

How to make onigiri

There are "onigiri mixes" available in some Asian markets, but they're about as good as the "flavor packet" in instant ramen. Avoid these unless you like eating dehydrated-flakes-of-i'm-not-sure-but-it-says-peas.


For the filling, go for something with a lot of flavor. Umeboshi might be a bit much, if you've never tried them before. Something a little citric or spicy works great. I've used: leftover curry tofu, seitan cooked in leftover miso soup, Korean BBQ tofu, refried beans, veggie chili, a broken-up chocolate bar, broccoli, etc. Broccoli (and other bland things) aren't good at all, the rice just makes it more bland. Chocolate is suprisingly awesome, but melts too easy unless you're quick and can get it to the fridge in time.


  • Make the rice as directed on the bag (usually 2 cups of rice to 2 1/5 cups of water) - make sure to wash it first
  • Cook up your goodies (if needed)
  • lay a piece of Saran Wrap over a bowl, sprinkle a little salt on it (keeps the rice from sticking) - OR - wet your hands and sprinkle salt on them (the rest of this assumes you're going the Saran Wrap route)
  • Sing the song below while waiting for ingredients to cook
  • Once the rice is done (still hot!), take about 1/6 cup of it and drop it onto the wrap
  • Add filling to the middle of the rice and cover with a bit more rice
  • Bunch up the wrap and squish the rice into your favorite shape (the triangle style is best, but spheres are easiest)
  • Warm a sheet of nori in a pan until it's not so crackly
  • Unwrap rice from Saran Wrap
  • Sprinkle roasted sesame seeds on rice
  • Rewrap in nori, either a thin strip or the whole sheet (thin strips are good if using odd ingredients that won't taste good with nori) - or avoid the nori altogether when using really non-traditional fillings, but it'll be messier (Twinkie creme and seaweed don't taste good together)
  • Say "itadakimasu!" and eat, or refrigerate to (impress/get shunned by) your co-workers during your next lunch break.
  • Realize it takes a couple tries to really get it right, and make more!

There are all sorts of other ways to make onigiri - one of my favorites is to baste the outside in shoyu and lightly brown it before wrapping it in the nori (actually, I leave out the nori, depending on the ingredients - barbecue sauce and nori do NOT mix). It's the yakimusubi version mentioned above, sort of a grilled cheese style.

Onigiri can be eaten hot or cold, depending on the ingredients. Using salty ingredients helps keep the rice from spoiling, so they are good for taking on long walks or road trips. Not recommended for mayonnaise-filled onigiri, of course.

Onigiri is Made of Some One
(a song about onigiri found on someone's homepage, author unknown, quoted verbatim)

Onigiri is made of some one (x3)
Your head is made of ani rice
Onigiri is made of some one (x3)
I speak to you this story

This one is better food how about be eat?
How did you taste good? Becose this one this one is onigiri!

Onigiri is so nice for the people
Let's eat! More and more onigiri!

(...see, everything really can be used as onigiri filling.)

Information lifted from various cookbooks and lots of Japanese "hello world" homepages/English class projects. And quite possibly a couple of sensei's tasty food nodes.

I have a wonderful memory of being about four years old and being given rice balls by a neighbour. They were so good that even now I can recall the fragrance, taste, and texture of the rice.

I used to wander around our neighbourhood to explore gardens, eat succulent stolen snow peas, climb fences, and sit on other people’s porches. One morning, I was sitting on someone’s back porch when the door opened and an elderly Japanese woman appeared. I was about to flee, but her smile stopped me. She stepped towards me without speaking a word and offered me a small plate of rice balls. She’s probably long dead by now, some 40 years later, but I will never forget her, or her strangely pleasant silence, or the delicate rice balls that melted in my mouth.

So the following recipe is my tribute to a woman I didn’t know, who I consider to be my first real friend, someone who gave me something for nothing – for no reason at all.

The first time you make onigiri, you might find it simplest to follow the following list of suggested seasonings and proportions quite closely. But once you get the hang of it, you will be able to improvise and use your own ingredients.

You’ll Need

While the rice is cooking, prepare the fillings in a collection of small dishes so that everything is ready. Pit the umeboshi plums, divide them in half and set them aside. Mix two tablespoons of the bonito flakes with one teaspoon of shoyu (soy sauce) in a small bowl and set aside the rest of the dry bonito on a small plate. Cut some takuan into small pieces, maybe ¼ inch cubes and set them aside. Place the sesame seeds on another small plate. Cut the nori into narrow strips, then dip them in shoyu and set aside.

Now Do This With All of That

Wet both of your hands and sprinkle one with salt (or you could just use salted water to wet your hands, but it’s not the same thing). Place about two tablespoons of rice in your salted hand and make a hollow in the centre. Fill it with half an umeboshi, cover it with rice and shape it into a ball, small enough to fit into a child’s mouth. Repeat with the remaining umeboshi. Now wrap a soaked nori strip around the ball, moistening the ends of the nori to make the overlapping ends adhere. Place on a serving dish.

Repeat the above to make bonito-filled balls, using ¼ of the soaked bonito in each one. Then roll the finished balls in dried bonito and place them on the serving platter.

Shape four balls filled with takuan pickle, four filled with pickled ginger, and then roll all of them in the ground sesame seeds.

Mix any remaining rice with toasted sesame seeds, whole or ground, approximately ¼ teaspoon per ball and shape them. Then wrap a nori strip around each one.

Arrange all of the onigiri on the platter and serve with pickled ginger and a dipping sauce. See sensei’s An Easy Way to Make Not-so-good Food Much Better.

By the way, you can also grill onigiri, then brush them with a little shoyu or some hatcho miso. You can serve them as is, or serve them in a soup, using one per bowl, topped with slivered scallions or flat leafed parsley, over which near-boiling dashi is poured.

And if you try your hand at making rice balls, please check outside your window to see if there is a little hungry kid on your back porch.

One of the most compact and portable of traditional Japanese foods is "o-nigiri" (a rice ball) which is also known as "o-musubi". "Nigiri" is the noun of the verb "nigiru" (to clasp) and "musubi" is the noun form of the verb "musubu" (to join, unite, connect and so on).

My own fusion cuisine version. Very jpanese in style although i use some Chinese ingredients as well. I would have noded these under Rice Balls but No need to be redundant, these vary from the traditional riceballs quite a bit:

1/2 Cucumber
Apple Cider Vinegar
1/4 pound pork tenderloin
Hoisin Sauce
Soy Sauce
Nori Seaweed (the kind often used in making sushi rolls, I may not have the name right)
Dice de-seed and dice the cucumber, place in a small bown or glass add a solution of equal parts Apple Cider Vinegar and Water combined with about a teaspoon of suger (just to remove the edge of the vinegar a little) and let soak for 1/2 to 1 hour. Now coarsley mince the pork (as it needs to cook quickly). In another bowl place the diced pork, stir in about a tablespoon or so of Hoisin, bit of soy sauce, a dash of pepper and a teaspoon or so of sugar, this should marinate for about 15 minutes to half an hour. I usually do this right before I start the rice, when the rice is done cooking I know that the marinade is done. Now start your rice. You can cook this rice as normal (although i like to throw in a small splash of apple cider vinegar), or as sushi rice. Now fry your pork in a VERY hot pan with a bit of oil, when it's cooked all the way through remove it, drain off any excess fat and set it aside to cool. Also drain your cucumbers and get ready to prepare your dish. Cool the rice a bit (so that you can handle it without burning your hand off). Now form your rice balls by placing a flat layer of rice on your palm, adding either pork or cucumber, and then topping with another layer, carefully form into ball shape and place on a small square of seaweed (it should be a suqare in width equal to the diameter of the rice ball). Arrange on a plate with any left over pork or cucumber being used as a garnish (I also shred some seaweed to use for this purpose as well). Sprinkle the balls with kosher (or sea) salt.

To eat: scoop off the top of the ball with chopsticks, as you get near the bottom pick it up by the seaweed and eat it like one would a taco. Yum!

Onigiri can be found in many different types of eateries throughout Japan and are a staple of many sushi shops and izakayas. The most common place to find onigiri are in combinis (convenience stores). These onigiri range from 100 to 150 yen and are typically filled with salmon, roe, pickled seaweed and most commonly tuna salad. The combini employees will usually ask you if you would like to heat the onigiri in the microwave, which can be a godsend on cold nights. As stated earlier, onigiri usually come in triangular or circular shapes.

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