Are you like, “wtf is onigiri?" or “that triangle looks complicated". If so, I'm here to tell you it's easier than it looks and everything will be okay. The best part about onigiri is that they are a humble food and a minimalist's dream. The result is a stomach full of rice and happiness. Those food emojis that once eluded you ( 🍙+ 🍘) are finally making sense now.
Onigiri are rice balls (or shapes) wrapped in nori and often stuffed with a filling. A comfort food made up of fun shapes and endless fillings– onigiri have the potential to steal your heart. Like all the fancy toasts nowadays, a blank canvas of rice invites almost any creation you can dream up. Maybe this is your first attempt making onigiri. If it is, I'm excited for you. I love first times because you never know what to expect and every step is an adventure and a learning process. Remember your first kiss? I do. Mine was wet and weird and his first kiss too. We were twelve and had just become official via awkward phone call on the kitchen landline. We met up with friends and were wandering the streets; we never had real destinations back then, we went anywhere and nowhere. We stopped beside a large subdivision mailbox and with our friends standing ten feet away “not watching us", we kissed. I had to crank my neck up facing the sky because he was tall and I could smell his breath, which wasn't bad but weird because I was rarely that close to someone. He didn't have a clue what to do, (I had practiced on a pillow so I knew a thing or two). My first kiss felt like something between CPR and a gaping fish mouth sucking up food from the top of the tank. It was methodical with tense tongue action and the entire time I attempted to adjust his robot-like motions with no success. He burped after, (not in a hot way), which didn't surprise me from the way he was sucking the air from lungs moments before. It was not at all what I expected and although I thought I was going to love it, I didn't. At first. I had to keep trying, maybe three or four times before kissing was fun, albeit not as good as my pillow boyfriend. Kissing is weird when you think about it. We put our germy wet mouths together and move them around. Sometimes it feels like I can almost inhale the other person's soul. Like I could pull it into mine through kiss and desire. I've always wanted to be inside someone else's soul and mine at once. Like a double soul! Would I feel twice as alive?!
My first time eating sushi wasn't great either. Yes, kissing and sushi can parallel each other. My mouth wasn't used to the textures and flavours and I had to get my mind around eating raw fish after growing up with a white North American diet. I kept trying sushi though, because there was something that appealed to me even though I couldn't eat more than a few bites. It took me five sushi outings before I began to crave it. Then I was hooked. And I loved knowing that you really can't judge a book by it's cover, or even it's first chapter. Life is funny and cliche that way. We are always changing and evolving into someone new but yet we are still the same, or appear to be. Your first onigiri may not be the prettiest but they'll get easier and better each time. Like kisses and raw fish.
Guide To Onigiri
To make onigiri you must use white Japanese sushi rice. Not brown, not jasmine, not wild rice. Sushi rice is the only way because of it's sticky consistency. Onigiri will fall apart with any other type. I use the brand in the above photo and you can purchase it at most Asian grocery stores. It is also very important to rinse the rise in cold water until the water run completely clear or your cooked rice consistency will be off.
Seasoning The Rice
When the rice is still warm, add to a bowl, season with whatever you like and mix with a large spoon/ rice paddle or chopsticks until evenly combined.. Here are some ideas for seasonings.
- Furikake – Japanese seasoning usually made with bonito flakes (fish flakes), seaweed, sesame seeds. Can be found in Asian grocery stores.
- Sesame seeds – white or black, I prefer black to give colour contrast.
- Herbs, fresh + finely chopped – cilantro, basil, mint, parsely, chives, green onions. Just remember to match your filling with your herb. (eg. mint would go well with a cucumber filling but probably not with salmon).
- Seaweed– soaked and finely chopped.
- Kelp or dulse flakes
- Yukari – Japanese seasoning made with shiso.
- Sakebushi – dried, fermented and smoked salmon flakes.
- Sriracha + Tamari/ Bragg's aminos/ Soy sauce
- Rice Vinegar
- Sesame oil
- Nuoc cham – A Vietnamese sauce that's sweet, fishy and tart.
Each onigiri only needs about one tablespoon of filling or it will seep out of the middle when you mold it. Be as creative as you like, onigiri are very versatile. Just consider your seasoning, filling and dipping flavours when you dream up your onigiri. You can use almost anything for a filling, especially if you want to use up little bits of leftovers in your fridge (eg. chicken, roasted vegetables etc). Here are some ideas for fillings.
- Tuna or salmon, canned – w/ mayo (or Kewpie mayo from Japan), a dijon little mustard/ wasabi, salt + pepper.
- Umeboshi – pickled salted plums, a traditional onigiri filling. Remember to remove the pit.
- Avocado – mashed or finely chopped w/ a pinch of salt and squeeze of lemon/lime
- Radish – fresh or pickled. You can use this recipe for quick pickled onions to do an easy and fast pickle of any vegetable you prefer.
- Black garlic – It tastes like something between a sweet beet and roasted garlic. It's my new obsession (nice on fried rice as well) and can be found at most Asian grocery stores.
- Cucumber – finely chopped. Add a little sesame oil, chili flakes and rice vinegar if you like.
- Mushrooms – sauted or pickled, finely chopped.
- Cooked fish/meat – finely chopped
- Pickled ginger
- Shrimp – finely chopped
- Egg – scrambled or boiled + chopped
- Bacon – finely chopped
Flavour Combinations + Pairings
Here are some ideas for matching flavours within your seasoning, filling and dip (if desired).
- Vietnamese – seasoning: cilantro/basil/mint (or combine any together) filling: cucumber or cooked shrimp dip: nuoc cham sauce or peanut sauce
- Japanese – seasoning: furikake filling: tuna w/ mayo, rice vinegar + salt dip: tamari w/ a bit of wasabi.
- Korean – seasoning: black sesame seeds filling: kimchi dip: Bibimbap/ Gochujang sauce.
- Breakfast – seasoning: bacon (finely chopped) filling: scrambled egg or mashed sweet potato dip: smashed avocado/ guacamole or sriracha mayo.
- Mediterranean – seasoning: sundried tomatoes + fresh basil (finely chopped) filling: goat cheese dip: lemon tahini sauce
Rub with kosher salt + rub.
Take a palmful of rice + make into a ball.
Press a hole with thumb.
Add a tablespoon of filling.
Fold over like a book.
Form into desired shape.
Triangle, sphere or cylinder.
For more guidance, click here for triangle shaping video.
Cut nori sheets into shapes.
Fold around onigiri.
Wet edges of nori to seal on to each other.
Cut strips for smaller nori.
Fold on to onigiri.
Dip in sauce.
Bite. Chew. Enjoy.
HOW TO MAKE ONIGIRI (JAPANESE RICE BALLS)
inspiration: Asian snack food
the feels: warm, soft, comforting
eat with: green tea, tamari, sriracha, seaweed salad, green leaf salad, sake,homemade dipping sauce (below)
might like if you're into: Japanese cuisine, rice bowls, sushi, healthy snacks, comfort food, vessels for dipping sauces, geometric shapes, Hi-Chew candy (grape is my favourite), Pocky sticks.
makes 6 to 10 onigiri, depending on size || time: 30 to 45 minutes
- 1 cup sushi rice
- 1 + 1/4 cup water
- nori sheets for wrapping rice balls
- bowl of water for hands (or run hands under water at the sink after each onigiri)
- kosher salt for hand after the water
- filling for rice balls (cucumber, avocado, pickled radish, tuna, umeboshi). Approximately one tablespoon per onigiri shape.
- optional: few tablespoons of seasoning for the rice balls (sesame seeds, furikake, kelp flakes etc)
- 1.5 tablespoons tamari/ Bragg's liquid aminos (soy free)/ soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1/2 - 1 teaspoon sambal olek chili paste or sriracha
- 3 tablespoons water (or less if desired)
- optional: 1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger
- Rinse the rice thoroughly until the water runs clear.
- Cook rice based on your favourite method (mine is always via rice cooker). One cup of sushi rice yields about three cups of rice. Make sure not to cook the rice too far in advance because it is best molded and served when warm.
- While rice is cooking, prepare you filling(s). Chop fillings like cucumber or radish finely. Anything that's not already a paste like consistency like tuna or mashed avocado.
- Once rice is cooked, season it with whatever you like since onigiri is predominantly rice so it's important to add some extra flavour to the base of rice unless you're feeling classic plain rice. My favourites to add are furikake, black sesame seeds, or fresh herbs. Scroll up for the section on more seasoning options. Add seasoning to rice and mix with chopsticks or large wooden spoon. Add more if desired and mix again.
- Wet hands with water. Add a sprinkle of kosher salt to hands and rub together for a second to distribute evenly. Grab a palmful of rice and shape into a round ball. Press thumb into the middle to create an indent about a tablespoon in size. Fill with whatever filling you desire, be careful not to overfill the hole or it will be hard to shape the onigiri and the filling will squeeze out. Fold the sides in on each other like you're closing a book. The easiest way to learn the shaping technique is to look at the hand shapes I use in the photos above or use this video to get the hang of it. It's pretty simple once you get the feel of it. Repeat with the rest of the rice.
- Once all onigiri are shaped, cut or rip your nori into desired shapes. You can use a whole sheet to wrap your shapes or cut thin strips. When sticking to onigiri, wet the spots you want to stick together and they will adhere to each other. Serve on their own or with sriracha or whisk up the dipping sauce ingredients for my favourite addition.