If you are a fan of Japanese food then you have probably seen these cute shaped rice balls in the restaurants. It’s an amazing dish that can be enjoyed at any time of the day, as breakfast, mid-day snack, or lunch. It’s the go-to food for the Japanese and after sushi become popular across the world, these humble Japanese rice balls have also garnered a fair share of attention.
Despite their plain and humble appearance, the onigiri has a lot going inside its white (or garnished) surface. It can be stuffed with a variety of ingredients which makes this seemingly boring dish extremely exciting and delicious. No wonder, it’s a hot-selling item at the convenience stores, street-corner shops, and specialized restaurants.
If you are new to this dish or planning to try making it at home then here’s some useful information for you. In this post, we will talk about what Onigiri is? A guide to the Japanese rice ball that may not be as popular as sushi worldwide, but they are slowly getting there. The sheer beauty of this dish is that it can be enjoyed in so many ways – flavored, grilled, or garnished.
The History of Onigiri
Onigiri is Japanese food prepared from cooked white rice formed into triangle or circle shapes and have a deep-rooted history that goes back to the 1st Century AD. During the excavations, hard clumps of steamed rice have been found at ruins from 2000 years ago. These were probably used as food for soldiers and easy meals for travelers.
Even today, the dish is indispensable to the Japanese, much like a sandwich is for Western people. Often referred to as fast food, the dish is made from steamed rice, dried nori strips, and various types of fillings. They are traditionally prepared by moulding the rice with hands and if you wish to try this fun process at home then there are several onigiri filling ideas for you to try!
The Journey to Modern Day Onigiri
What started as a clump of rice became more like the onigiri we know today during the Heian period, when it was known as tonjiki. In the mid Edo period, nori or the processed form of seaweed became available to people and this was when the wrap was invented. With the nori wrap or strip, people could now eat the rice balls without getting their fingers sticky.
Onigiri has several other names such as nigirimeshi or omusubi, based on t regional influences and the different shapes. Despite a few variations, onigiri became the most commonly used name for the dish not only in Japan but in several parts of the world.
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Seven Different Varieties Of Onigiri
Although we usually think of triangular shape with a nori strip outside when talking about the Japanese rice balls, they may come in various other forms too. So, if you come across flat, cylindrical, or rice balls wrapped in other things, don’t be surprised. Here are 7 interesting variations of the dish.
1. Plain Unfilled Onigiri
A common myth about the dish is that there has to be a filling inside, but this is not necessary. A plain and slightly salted ball of steamed rice is also known as onigiri. It may have no fillings or wrap on the outside. This variety tastes best when you use the finest quality shinmai (first crop) rice to savor the pure flavors.
A tip for beginners – if you wish to make the dish at home, make sure you use short-grain rice as it has a sticky texture. Medium grain rice may also work to some extent but long-grain varieties are a complete no-no as they will not stick together to form that unique shape. Also, ask for the new or first crop of the harvest season or shinmai variety at the grocery store.
2. Filled and nori wrapped onigiri
This is the most common type of rice balls you find at the restaurants and also see in the bento boxes. It contains some form of salty filling inside a plain ball of steamed rice, which may be fully or partly covered with nori.
Some people who like to enjoy crisp nori over the rice balls prefer to carry the strips of seaweed separately and put them around only before eating. If the wrapped onigiri sits for too long, the nori sheet becomes soggy.
3. Mixed rice onigiri
In this variety, the steamed rice is mixed with some other ingredients such as green peas, bonito flakes, radish leaves, or sesame seeds. As the rice is already flavored and mixed with other ingredients, it usually does not contain any other filling inside.
This type of onigiri is easy to prepare at home with minimal ingredients and you don’t have to completely cover the rice balls. It may have a small nori strip or none at all. While anything may be mixed with the rice, we suggest that you use something that’s not too oily or moist.
4. Sprinkled Onigiri
This is again a common variety you can see at the restaurants – different seasonings, herbs, and seeds sprinkled over the rice balls. Besides making them look more appealing, this also enhances the overall taste and texture of the dish.
Some of the common garnishes used for sprinkling are toasted sesame seeds, furikake (mixed sprinkles), gomashio (sesame seeds mixed with salt), dried shiso leaves, and so on. The rice balls may or may not have fillings inside.
5. Visible-inside onigiri
This is a visually appealing onigiri which is not much different from the above in terms of taste but the appearance varies. In this type, the rice ball is partially wrapped around the sides instead of covering the entire surface.
While it looks attractive with the filling peeping out of the white rice, it is rather difficult to prepare than other forms. In most cases, they use one type of filling (for eg, tuna) to create this form.
6. Grilled Onigiri or Yaki onigiri
Some people don’t like the plain or mushy texture of white rice and this variation is a perfect suit for their taste buds. This form of onigiri is typically grilled over the fire on a wire rack until the exterior body becomes golden and crispy. It may then be brushed with miso or soy sauce.
Grilled onigiri taste their crispy and crunchy best when they are served hot. They tend to get chewy when cold but yet can be used as delicious bento additions. While they usually do not have fillings inside, some people like adding a little pickled stuff to enhance the flavor.
7. Onigiri with different wraps
Nori or seaweed is the most popular type of wraps used for this dish. However, you may use various other substitutes if you don’t like the appearance or taste of nori. Or, in case you have run out of nori sheets and need to make rice balls immediately, try the alternate wraps.
Some examples of alternate wraps are green shiso leaves, pickled green leaves, dried kombu seaweed, pickled nappa cabbage leaves, salted lettuce leaves, kimchee, or so on. The rice balls inside the wraps may be filled or unfilled.
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Common Fillings Used In Japanese Rice Balls
The fillings used inside the rice balls are more varied than the types of onigiri. Although tuna mayo mix and salmon mayo are popular fillings, they don’t necessarily have to be fish or seafood. You can use a plethora of vegan and vegetable fillings inside the rice balls.
The fillings may be cooked, grilled, pickled, salted, or even raw. Some of the most common filling ideas for onigiri are flaked salted salmon, salty cod roe, bonito flakes mixed with pickled plum, shrimp tempura, chicken karaage and so on.
What are your favourite onigiri fillings? Let us know in the comments below.
James is a sushi enthusiast and the owner of Easy Homemade Sushi. He has been to Japan several times and loves Japanese food and culture. He is also a passionate writer and likes to share his experiences and knowledge through his blog.