Onigiri is a staple in Japanese cuisine. Simple to make and tasty, these rice balls are a common snack found in Japanese lunchboxes (bento), in supermarkets, convenience stores and izakayas (pubs). Having enjoyed these as a quick snack in Tokyo, I was glad to find them in Manhattan in places like Restaurant Riki, Sunrise Mart and BentOn Cafe.
Onigiri is surprisingly easy to make, as all it takes is cooked short-grain Japanese rice wrapped around some type of filling and pressed into a triangular or round shape. It is often partially wrapped in nori, a thin sheet of seaweed, but can also be crusted in sesame seeds, or Japanese seasonings. Savory fillings can include salmon, tuna, soy soaked bonito flakes, umeboshi (pickled Japanese plum), hijiki and carrots, or even Spam! Well, the last is more of a Hawaii thing.
Onigiri can also be grilled or fried. Yaki onigiri, as the grilled version is known, is onigiri that has been brushed with soy sauce, miso, mirin or matcha salt and cooked until it’s nicely caramelized. Crispy and flavorful on the outside, it is light and fluffy on the inside.
Rice Balls (Onigiri)
- 3 cups short-grain white rice, cooked
- Fillings such as smoked salmon, tuna, ginger chicken,
umeboshi, hijiki, sundried tomatoes, (use your imagination)
- Sesame seeds to garnish
- 1 sheet nori (seaweed), cut into 2 finger-width strips
- Using warm or hot cooked rice, wet and lightly salt hands, take about 3/4 cup of rice and press slightly in hands, add a teaspoon of filling and fold rice over. Squeeze and flip rice over several times as you shape the rice into a triangular shape about 2 finger-widths thick. It helps to keep a bowl of water nearby and keep your hands moist as you mold the rice, so the rice doesn’t stick.
- If eating later, wrap in plastic wrap. If serving immediately, cut nori into 2 finger-width strips and wrap around outside of the onigiri. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. The nori should be wrapped just before eating to maintain crispiness.
- To make yaki onigiri, add sesame oil to a cast iron skillet on medium heat, add onigiri and cook until browned, about 5 minutes (if it cooks too quickly, turn heat to low). Turn and cook other side for 5 minutes, brush top with soy sauce or mix equal parts miso and mirin, turn and cook for 5 minutes. Brush with sauce or mix, turn again and cook for 5 minutes.
- Remove and let cool slightly. Some people like to serve yaki onigiri with soy sauce for dipping, however, I prefer to sprinkle it with shichimi (seven-spice seasoning).