Onigiri Basics

Onigiri, or rice balls, are often described as Japan’s equivalent of the sandwich. Humble, simple and basic to the core, they are made simply from pressing hot rice around some kind of savory filling and forming it into a shape (usually triangular). The name comes from the act of pressing (nigiru means “to press” or “grasp”), and is plural, because they are usually eaten, not one, but two or more at a time. You might recognize the word from nigiri sushi (rice topped with seafood, etc.) as well, since it’s the same action; it’s just that the result is smaller and perhaps more refined.

Onigiri may be humble when compared to sushi, but they are no less loved. We’ve grown up eating onigiri, enjoying them on outings and in school bentos, car trips and the like, for they are the perfect portable food: Filling, simple, convenient and satisfying, meant to be eaten with one’s hands and complete unto itself; no fancy sauces or condiments needed. Additionally, the salt on the outside acts as a preservative, keeping them fresh on a day’s journey (useful in the days before coolers and ice packs).

Everyone has their favorite, and our memories reflect upon the shape and texture of the onigiri our mothers’ hands created: A symbol of home, of family, and perhaps even what it means to be Japanese.

We’ll cover the basic techniques for making onigiri starting with this, our first in a series of blog posts.

Good quality rice is the most important ingredient for onigiri, whether it’s cooked in a rice cooker or on the stovetop. For the best results, use hot, freshly made rice, and use ONLY Japanese rice. Other types will not be sticky enough and will not produce the right results.

Since the beauty of onigiri is having a variety of fillings, it is important to lay out the ingredients on a work surface so that everything is close at hand. This means cooking and seasoning the fillings beforehand. We’ll cover each type in separate recipes to come.

Typical ingredients include — above, from left to right: tarako (salted cod roe); ikura (salmon caviar); sake (salt-grilled salmon) and umeboshi (pickled plum). You’ll also need a bowl of water to keep your hands wet, a dish of salt and some nori (seaweed) cut into strips.

Ready? Let’s start with salt-grilled sake (salmon) onigiri, one of the classics. We’ll post illustrated step-by-step instructions tomorrow.

Tableware, from left to right: tarako in a vintage Bizen clam-shaped bowl; ikura in a small bowl lined with gold leaf; salmon in a vintage ridged plate; umeboshi in an Oribe mukozuke by Tomonori Koyama; nori on a Bizen plate; salt in a 19th century mugiwara lid, used as a dish; water in a red Bizen bowl; rice in an antique Mishima bowl. Select items available on Mizuya.

3 Replies to “Onigiri Basics”

  1. WOW, fantastic pictures! I absolutely love your dishes, and how everything is arranged. What kind of nori did you use? It looks like black leather! This is pure art! 🙂

  2. Thank you Amato! I appreciate your kind words.

    I just used regular sushi nori. I usually buy thick nori with deep black (rather than green) color.

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