Onigiri, Japanese rice balls or rice triangles with savory fillings, are great to eat on the go. This recipe provides an easy step-by-step guide for how to make onigiri at home.
An Easy Onigiri Recipe
The Japanese have been rolling rice into easy-to-eat balls since before chopsticks were invented. Called Onigiri, these Japanese rice balls are easy way to eat without utensils. But they’re great for another reason: The rice preserves the savory fillings inside. And they make a great take-along lunch.
Sometimes you’ll find actual balls or rice molded into cute shapes like kitties and bunny rabbits, but triangle onigiri is the most common. And no matter how you shape them, these compact wonders hide delectable surprises inside. From cooked salmon onigiri to onigiri filled with marinated seaweed, tempura shrimp, or even American-style tuna salad, they’re all delicious. Fill your onigiri with just about anything you like.
These Japanese rice balls are adorable, delicious self-contained meals. Less boring than a sandwich, they’re the ideal snack to take to work, to school, or to the park. Sneak them into the movies or bring them along for a long plane, train, or bus ride.
What Kind of Rice Should You Use?
Use short- or medium-grain Japanese-style rice (japonica), which is the same type of rice used to make sushi. Other types of rice may not have the right starch content to stick together in a ball and the texture won’t be right.
How to Season the Rice
The traditional onigiri recipe calls for rice seasoned only with salt. I like to make it with sushi rice, which is seasoned with salt, sugar, and rice vinegar. Yum. But according to onigiri experts, this is totally wrong and I would never suggest that anyone else should do it this way. Whether you use plain or sushi rice, start with short or medium grain Japanese (japonica) rice and rinse it well before cooking.
How to Shape Onigiri
Shaping the onigiri may seem intimidating, but don’t fret. It’s easier than it looks. You can buy an inexpensive, easy-to-use onigiri mold. They come in fun shapes from basic triangles to flowers or assorted animals.
Tips for Success with this Onigiri Recipe
1. Use the right type of rice
Use short- or medium-grain Japanese-style (japonica) rice, the type that is used to make rice for sushi. This rice has the right amount of starch to hold together in a ball.
2. Use rice that is still warm
Cook your rice and let it cool until it is cool enough to handle. Shape and fill your rice balls, and then let them cool to room temperature before wrapping in seaweed (this will keep the seaweed from immediately getting soggy.)
3. Use wet hands to shape the rice balls
Wetting your hands with water keeps the rice from sticking to your hands, making it easier to make attractive rice balls. Keep a bowl of water on your countertop and dip your hands in as necessary to keep the rice from sticking.
4. Wrap your seaweed separately or use individually-wrapped seaweed sheets
If you plan to take it to go, wrap the seaweed separately or use individually-wrapped nori sheets. This will keep the seaweed fresh and crisp until you are ready to eat your onigiri.
Suggested Onigiri Fillings
The list of possible onigiri fillings is endless. Here are some suggested onigiri fillings, but let your imagination run wild.
- Salted and baked or broiled salmon, mackerel, or other fish
- Tea-Smoked Salmon
- Assorted Japanese pickles (available at Japanese markets)
- Shrimp tempura
sansai(Japanese spicy squid salad, available at many Japanese markets)
- Tuna salad (traditional or made with wasabi paste, Sriracha, or other ingredients)
- Umeboshi (pickled plums, available at Japanese markets)
- Teriyaki chicken
- Chicken Satay
- Seaweed salad
- Eggs (hard-boiled with wasabi paste or scrambled with a bit of soy sauce)
- Lox or smoked salmon and thinly sliced green onions
- Smoked trout with wasabi paste or prepared horseradish
- Leftover fried chicken, chopped
- Chicken liver pate
- Barbecued pork, diced or shredded
Traditionally, onigiri are made with plain rice, but I like to use sushi rice seasoned with rice vinegar, sugar, and salt just because, well, it’s even more delicious. Fill your onigiri with whatever fillings you desire. See my post for a list of ideas. (Onigiri are intended to be kept at room temperature for several hours, so using raw fish as a filling is not recommended (of course, if you’re planning to eat your onigiri soon after preparing them, feel free to disregard this advice). Here are just a few of my favorite fillings. Be creative and dream up your own fillings, or simply use leftovers from last night’s dinner.
For the rice:
- 2 cups short grain Japanese (japonica) rice
- 3 cups water
For the sushi rice seasoning (optional):
- 1/3 cup rice vinegar
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
For the rice balls:
- 8 sheets roasted seaweed (nori) or onigiri wrappers* (optional)
- One or more fillings (enough to fill 8 balls, which is about ½ to 3/4 cup)
- Rinse the rice in cold water at least 5 times and drain well in a fine-mesh sieve. If using a rice cooker, simply add the rice and cold water to the rice cooker and cook according to the cooker’s instructions. To cook the rice in a pot on the stovetop, place the rice in a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Add the cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a very low simmer, cover the pot, and simmer for about 20 minutes, until all of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender.
- If using the sushi rice seasoning, while the rice is cooking, combine the vinegar, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan and heat over medium heat, stirring, just until the sugar is dissolved. When the rice is finished cooking, stir the vinegar mixture into it until well combined.
- Transfer the rice from the rice cooker or cooking pot to a large bowl and let cool until it is cool enough to handle.
- Shape your onigiri while the rice is still warm. If using a mold, wet the inside of the mold and, using wet hands, fill it about halfway with rice. Make an indentation in the middle of the rice with your thumb and add your filling, about a tablespoon or so. Add more rice on top to fill the mold. Place the top half of the mold on top and press down gently. Remove the top of the mold and invert the bottom half over a plate. Press down on the button in the middle to help the onigiri slide out. Wet the inside of the mold again and repeat the process until you have used up all of your rice and filling or have made the desired number of onigiri.
- If shaping the onigiri by hand, use wet hands and shape into a ball, make an indentation in the middle, fill with about 1 tablespoon of filling, and close up the hole with a bit more rice. Leave it in a ball shape, or use your hands to form it into a triangular shape, if desired.
- If using individually-wrapped onigiri wrappers, leave the plastic wrap on them and wrap them around your rice balls. If using regular nori sheets cut into strips, wrap in plastic wrap. Onigiri can be stored at room temperature for several hours. If you wish to store them longer than that, store in the refrigerator and bring to room temperature before serving.
- To serve, remove the plastic wrap from the nori wrapper, if necessary, and wrap the onigiri in the nori or simply remove the plastic wrap and serve at room temperature.
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 57 Total Fat: 0g Saturated Fat: 0g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 0g Cholesterol: 0mg Sodium: 215mg Carbohydrates: 13g Fiber: 0g Sugar: 4g Protein: 1g