Ever had a rice ball? That is what onigiri commonly translates to, a rice ball. Ball o-rice. Except that it’s not so much a ball as a rounded triangle of rice and flavoring that often comes from fish and/or sea vegetables. They can actually come in varied shapes and sizes. Also, you should know that onigiri are life savers.
They are any busy person and any parent’s best friend. Imagine not having to choose between health, taste, and convenience. This stuffed, sprinkled, and filled rice ball is sold on-the-go from any convenient store or supermarket and made in every kitchen across Japan.
Any sports event, picnic, party, or any day may feature an onigiri. They may also be called “musubi” and there is no shortage of ideas or ways to may it your own. Think a piece of fried chicken inhabiting the center of the rice pillow or salted salmon, tuna fish thick with tangy mayonnaise, or an all-veggie experience. Onigiri are your friend.
My eleven-month-daughter already has a penchant for the all-in-one snack/meal. Just Sunday she gobbled up most of a salmon and toasted sesame seed nigiri and would have eaten every morsel, no mess, but her older sister implored me like a baby bird, “More. Another bite” until they were both wordlessly opening their mouths on the train.
Crisis averted. No tears. Happy tummies.
Japan is genius in the omusubi/onigiri department. It is as the collective, nourishing battle cry is, “No one must go hungry or wait until home until they eat something of substance”.
What’s more, they are cheap. We’re talking around 150 yen, roughly $1.50 for a small meal. I can read your mind—rice? What, do you hold it with bare hands? Sticky, no? Quite right. That would be a bit grizzly and quite unrefined. No. Crispy nori/laver seaweed covers the outside surface, making a handy place to hold it, and also providing a crisp, snappy bite along with every soft bite of rice. Most bought onigiri now feature plastic wrapping between the rice ball and seaweed so that, by following the labeled 1-2-3 directions to pull wrapping in specific places, the plastic pulls away to provide the freshest pari-pari (sound of seaweed crunching) nori-covered onigiri imagined.
Onigiri is absolutely a Japanese experience—packing for school trips, impromptu picnics, sports’ day—These hand-packed rice balls became a staple during war. Samurai soldiers had a way of transporting handy meals featuring sushi rice (vinegar to preserve) and salted fish, pickled plums, etc. The food could last and provide them with nourishment. Onigiri comes from the word “握にぎる/onigiru”, to grasp, since they are formed by hand, similar to nigiri sushi.
What became necessity then has lasted for the same convenience and tastiness.
Young children can make onigiri, no problem. Simply lay a sheet of Saran-Wrap over a small bowl and plop them a small spoonful or oshamoji (rice paddle) full of freshly-made, warm rice on top of the plastic wrap. Use toppings such as furikake (flavored dry fish flakes, veg, seaweed), fish, or pickled plum inside of the rice ball or sprinkled on top.
With their little hands, they can take Saran Wrap in hands and fold up corners, shaping a kind of rice snowball, but keeping hands clean thanks to the plastic. I learned this trick from my friend a mentor, a woman who’d been raising kids and teaching kindergarten in Tokyo for decades. If not shaping rice in Saran Wrap, wet your hands for the duration of hand-shaping, as rice is sticky!
They are made for feisty kids and also, more demure adults. Again, classic.
Onigiri may be made mini, large, sphere-shaped, or in a neat triangle. Have fun! Experiment with toppings and treasure inside for the ultimate in healthful snack or meal. The purple above is my daughter’s favorite, a divine food called yukari, a red shiso leaf with ume/plum. It is sweet and comes alive with a gentle, herbacious zest.
The green ribbons above are zuccini, parboiled. Easy, right? Onigiri can be used with most any veg, seasoning, or spread. I am easily inspired by color and I want my children to get that, too, to want to layer on the produce and flavor.
I have in my possession, the cutest little recipe book, just packed with onigiri inspiration. Many of the tricks contain techniques within Japanese cuisine, so it is much more than salting some rice or plopping a sardine on the front.
Here it is, Onigiri Recipe 101, by Reiko Yamada.
Tonight, with all of the bells and whistles going off with our hectic Wednesday, just me and three kids post school, dance class and park, I called Onigiri Party and we rocked it. I ony needed to make rice beforehand (rice makers kick it) and have toppings and bits of filling on-hand.
Follow the guides on your rice cooker using short-grain Japanese rice or make it on the stove. If using the latter, here is your reminder primer for how to get the best rice for your on-the-go-delicacy. (Also keep in mind that the freshest, still-steaming rice will be the most flavorful. Leftover rice is better for making fried rice).
Serious Eats advises this basic rice recipe for onigiri:
Rinse 1 ½ cups of sushi rice in water, drain, bring the rice to a simmer in a saucepan with 2 cups of water, cover and lower the heat to medium-low for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and keep the saucepan covered for another 10 minutes.
Mix in your seasoning, grate in carrot, a wild handful of toasted sesame seeds, broiled fish, chicken, heck–a Scotch Egg. Do your thing. My cute handbook, Onigiri Recipe 201 even supplies a Jambalaya Onigiri recipe. Maybe I’ll work up my bravery to somehow incorporate a matzah ball. Or not. Maybe just smoked salmon and a smidgen of cream cheese or my fabulous basil-infused mustard from friends in Luxembourg. Get foodie and fresh on this ball o-rice.
Wrap with freshly opened nori/laver seaweed, or don’t. I was out of nori tonight, but we improvised with some of that salty, thin Korean nori. Eating it out of the wrapper, sans nori is always an option.
Now take your onigiri batch to a park, bring it for a fast refuel after the baseball game, or in between waves at the shore. Get the biggest bank for your buck, er 100 yen.
Before eating, give thanks with a hearty “itadaki-masu!”