Torontonians rejoice! Onigiri—the delectable, convenient and nutritious Japanese comfort food—has landed across the city. Here, we also guide you through making your own at home.
Onigiri are a convenient and tasty shapes, from round balls to long cylinders to picnics, school lunches, the train, car or plane, snack or meal, as well as a comfort food that’s very popular in Japan. These “rice balls” are often made with cooled white Japonica rice and a savoury filing or topping of your choice, though they’re also sometimes made with rice cooked together with an ingredient or seasoning (mixed rice), or just with plain salted rice. Though they are sometimes known as omusubi or nigirimeshi, onigiri is their most common name. The much-loved rice “balls” also come in a variety of the more classic triangle.
Onigiri in Japan are as widespread as the sandwich is in Canada—you can find rice balls/ triangles/cylinders just about everywhere, from train stations to vending machines, convenience stores to supermarkets, and even in shops and restaurants that specialize in onigiri. They are very neat to eat as well as being compact, making them an ideal snack or meal on the go. Popular onigiri “destinations” include bento boxes, parties—really, anywhere that a tasty, convenient bite is needed. And the filling options for onigiri are endless! Popular ingredients include umeboshi (pickled plum) and other pickled, chopped vegetables, salted salmon, kombu (kelp), tuna, shrimp or salmon with mayo, grilled tarako (salted roe), shrimp tempura, mixed chicken rice, and sekihan (sticky rice with red beans). To finish, onigiri are most often wrapped in nutritious nori (seaweed) and sprinkled with black sesame seeds.
How to make Onigiri
1.Wet your hands
In order to minimize contamination (as rice is a prime target for harmful bacteria), wash your hands thoroughly. Then, wet your hands and sprinkle them with salt.
2.Put filling in
Fill a cupped hand with a fistful of rice and then spoon in your chosen ingredient (such as umeboshi, pictured). Add more rice to cover up the filling.
3. Shape the rice
Make a “V” with your full hand and press the other hand gently on top. Carefully pat and rotate the rice until you get that perfect triangle shape.
4. Wrap with nori
Prepare the nori (seaweed): either rip it or cut it using scissors. Delicately wrap it around the rice. You may find it helpful to use a flat, hard surface.
6 Colourful Rice Balls
The umeboshi onigiri sees a whole pickled plum, smashed to remove the pit, placed either on top (as pictured) or crushed whole inside haigamai rice. The taste is a surprisingly pleasant, sour and salty delight. It’s also one of the most traditional onigiri fillings: the pickled plum kills bacteria, making the rice ball last longer.
The shiso onigiri combines yukari (which is a mix of shiso, salt and sugar) with haigamai rice. The whole treat is then wrapped with fresh shiso leaf. Shiso, a relative of both basil and mint (who also happen to be cousins), lends a herbal and aromatic flavour to this interesting onigiri.
Literally meaning “red rice,” the sekihan onigiri features the stickier mochi rice (as is traditional for this recipe), rather than the haigamai rice that was used for the rest of the recipes pictured here. Mochi rice is cooked together with azuki beans, lending the onigiri its red colouring. Sesame seeds and salt finish it off.
The salmon mayo variety is simple, yet so tasty. Sometimes made with grilled fresh salmon, in this version, canned salmon is mixed together with a mayonnaise-based sauce and topped with fresh green onions. Generous servings of creamy salmon are used and the taste, even though it’s from a can, is fresh and satisfying.
This onigiri combines sweet haigamai rice with shiitake mushrooms, burdock and carrot. The resulting flavour is a delicious dance of sweet and airy-light tastes. This saucy and ingredient-packed onigiri is a favourite for children’s lunches. It’s pictured here in what’s called a tawara-gata (straw rice bag) shape.
Finely ground, loose meat is cooked with a combination of soy sauce, mirin and sugar. Beef is the most traditional ingredient for this onigiri, though the chefs at Abokichi have perfected a delicious, healthful ground chicken option. Pictured, a generous topping of chicken sits atop a fresh mound of rice.
Unpacking your onigiri: Start with the rice
Ah, rice! The foundation for so much in Asian culture and food. Traditionally, onigiri are made using steam-cooked white Japonica rice: a broad classification of rice that refers to a number of short-and medium-grain varieties as well as the more glutinous “mochigome” (mochi) rice. There is also a variety of black Japonica rice that has a sweet and nutty flavour. More recently, health-conscious chefs around the world have experimented with making onigiri using other, more healthful varieties of rice, and the results are indeed delicious. For the onigiri pictured in this feature, haigamai (haiga rice) was the base of choice. Haiga rice is a cross between white and brown rice—the rice is half-milled to remove only the outer bran layer, leaving the germ (haiga) intact. The result is a tan-coloured rice that is both richer in flavour and healthier than white rice but not as hard as brown rice. At the Onigiri Society’s Gyu stand in Harajuku, Tokyo, brown rice onigiri are offered as well as traditional white-rice options. Brown rice has a nuttier, richer flavour than white rice, is high in fibre and also helps to keep your body’s blood sugar levels in check.
Making your own? Some rice-cooking tips
There is no one way to cook rice for onigiri; steaming and boiling both work. Or employ the assistance of a rice cooker, if you have one—especially for large batches. If you are making onigiri at home and cannot find any Japonica rice in your pantry, it is acceptable to substitute Italian medium-grain rice such as vialone, commonly used to make risotto. Vialone is the rice closest in taste and texture to the Japanese short-grain rice.
Don’t leave hygiene off your prep list
In Japan, there is a saying that people prefer the taste of their own mother’s onigiri, and apparently there is some truth to this sentiment, as each onigiri supposedly takes on the unique taste of the maker’s hands. This ability for rice to absorb such “personal individual qualities” is why a thorough hand-washing before making onigiri is highly recommended! Alternatively, some chefs employ good old saran wrap as their bacterial safeguard when making onigiri.
THE ONIGIRI SOCIETY
Celebrating everything onigiri
The Onigiri Society in Japan opened their first shop specializing in onigiri on September 30, 2016. The gourmet rice ball stand, Gyu, is located on the second floor of the Laforet Department Store in the trendy Harajuku shopping district of Tokyo. On the menu are both traditional (i.e., salmon and umeboshi) and modern, creative twists on onigiri, such as coriander and matcha options. Standard onigiri made with white rice as well as onigiri made with the more healthful brown rice are both on the menu. Also offered are “onigiri petit” for that perfect bite-sized snack, and house-made miso soup and pickled vegetables.
Special thanks to Abokichi
Jess Mantell and Fumi Tsukamoto, co-owners of Abokichi, kindly lent us their expertise in assembling the onigiri for this feature. Located at 258 Dupont St., Abokichi sells onigiri as well as sandwiches, salads, hot beverages and a selection of specially curated foods. To complement their onigiri, Mantell created Okazu, a “crunchy-oil” condiment made with Japanese miso, chili and sesame oil.