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.