Japanese Onigiri

Japan holds a very special place in my heart. I’ve had the privilege to travel to this intriguing country several times, the first of which lasting a full summer, staying with a Japanese family when I was 15. Since the Japanese food that is most famous all across the world (sushi, ramen, sashimi, teppanyaki) is not generally consumed on a daily basis at home in Japan, I want to share with you a dish that is made often by Japanese moms to feed their families. It is incidentally also one of my favourites, if only for the warm memories eating these hold for me.

As this is a highly flexible dish, I will not provide a recipe, but rather a walk through of the process. Plain onigiri (rice balls) will keep well in the fridge for several days, in an airtight container. Add your toppings just before consuming, as a snack or light lunch, at home, school, or work. Once you get the hang of it you can go all out by shaping them like Hello Kitty heads or panda bears!

Three Onigiri rice balls.

Three Onigiri rice balls.

1. Prepare Japanese short grain (sushi) rice on a stovetop or in your rice-cooker. Wash the rice twice before cooking it. Don’t forget to salt the water.

2. Prepare your fillings. Fillings are all up to you. My favourite is flaked soy marinated grilled salmon. Also great are spicy tuna mayo or chicken teriyaki. Really, any leftover protein will make a lovely filling. Of course you can also opt for vegetarian fillings, such as spicy plum compote or avocado and Japanese mayo. You won’t need a lot of filling for each of the balls; count on toony sized heaps per onigiri.

3. Fill the balls. Shaping takes a bit of practice, and perhaps a YouTube tutorial, but don’t fear; they’ll taste great anyway. The onigiri will be as big as the palm of your hand. This step will turn out best while the rice is still warm. Wet your hands with cold water, to prevent the rice from sticking to your fingers. Place a layer of rice on the palm of your left hand. Make a small indentation in the middle and fill it with your choice of filling. Place another layer of rice on top and shape the ball into a triangle by cupping your left hand and cupping your right hand over it, your right pinky touching your left index finger. Roll the ball over in your hands a couple of times or use the countertop of your kitchen to help you with shaping.

4. Topping or wrapping the balls. Onigiri are traditionally wrapped in dried seaweed (nori), to add crunch, flavour, and to make it easier to hold on to the sticky rice. Don’t wrap the balls in seaweed too long before eating it; the seaweed will become soggy. Next to wrapping, you can get creative and use toppings. Toppings include sesame seeds, fried onions, or little bits of the filling. You can even pan fry the whole thing to give it a nice golden brown colour and some crunch. Itadakimasu!