Japanese Rice Balls
Nothing works up an appetite like a nice hike on a warm, early spring day! Let's have lunch! I brought sandwiches, what'd you bring? Onigiri? Wow, so many different kinds! PB&J goes back in the bag, pass the onigiri! Onigiri are rice balls, which usually contain a filling, or are coated with a salty/savory seasoning, and they are generally triangular or rounded. Due to the fact that they are quick and simple to make, easy to carry and easy to eat (no utensils needed!), onigiri have always been the food of choice for taking on trips or picnics, packing in obento, etc. Many Japanese recall eating onigiri when they were small, and they have a deep sense of nostalgia for both the food itself, and the memories associated with it. Originally called nigirimeshi, onigiri soon became the commonly used term; depending on the region, however, omusubi is also used. Use of the honorific "o" is optional. They are best made with the type of japonica rice called uruchimai, the short grain rice used for regular Japanese dishes, since it will nicely hold a shape without being overly sticky. While most Asian countries have a "rice culture," meaning that the staple food is rice, onigiri are special to Japan, likely due to the texture of japonica rice which lent itself to the onigiri in ways other types of rice didn't.
History of Onigiri
In recent years, a carbonized lump of compressed rice grains, somewhat resembling onigiri, was discovered among ruins dating back to the 3rd century BCE in Japan. Since it showed signs of having been formed by hand, it was reported to be Japan's oldest onigiri. At a later date, other carbonized lumps of rice thought to be onigiri were found in a bento box dated about 6th century AD, and this was thought to be an onigiri bento. However, on closer inspection, the rice was revealed to be kodaimai, or ancient grains, which had been steamed and then cooked, and thus was different than today's onigiri made with uruchimai.
Today's onigiri had their roots in a food item called tonjiki. Tonjiki was a large ball of mochigome (glutinious rice) that was pressed into an oval shape. There is a written account of them being distributed to those who served or otherwise worked at banquets and other festivities at the Imperial Court, or estates of the upper classes during the Heian period (794-1185). It was also recorded that, in the early Kamakura period (around 1220), onigiri filled with umeboshi (salted pickled plums) were distributed to the warriors, and later during the Warring States period (1467-1603) onigiri were used as portable provisions because they could easily be transported and eaten sans utensils. The highly acidic umeboshi acted as a preservative, so the warriors didn't have to worry about dying from food poisoning from less-than-fresh onigiri. From approximately 1300 on, uruchimai, or regular rice, as opposed to mochigome, was used to make onigiri. In the Edo period (1603-1868), onigiri became established as a food that the general populace enjoyed during outings and excursions such as hanami (cherry blossom viewing) and hanabi (fireworks), and in some ukiyo-e woodblock prints, we can see people on a journey enjoying onigiri. Onigiri wrapped in nori began to show up mid-Edo period when the production of sheet nori started.
Fillings and Seasonings for Onigiri
While some onigiri are made with nothing more than white rice formed into shape with a light coating of salt, almost anything has the potential to be a filling or a seasoning for onigiri! You can let your imagination run wild, as long as the filling is able to be compressed, and isn't too wet or oily so the rice won't absorb all that and fall apart. Many fillings also have some preservative qualities (good when you're making onigiri for next day's lunch, or to take on a long drive), and generally have a strong savory flavor. Since onigiri came on the menu hundreds of years ago, typical fillings have included umeboshi, bonito flakes seasoned with soy sauce, konbu tsukudani (a type of edible seaweed simmered in soy sauce and mirin), and grilled flaked salted salmon. Other common fillings are grilled salted cod roe, dried baby anchovies, salmon roe and spicy pollack roe, to name a few! Some non-traditional fillings that are popular nowadays: tuna with a bit of mayo, corned beef or other seasoned chopped beef, shrimp tempura, etc.—but take note that some of these non-trads are more perishable than the traditional ones, especially ones made with mayo or deep-fried goodies.
All of the above are made with plain white rice, but onigiri can also be made with rice that has been seasoned, such as takikomi gohan (ingredients are cooked along with the rice), or mazekomi gohan (furikake or similar seasonings are added to already cooked hot rice). It's not standard to include fillings in onigiri made with these kinds of rice, but, standard or no, onigiri made with rice mixed with wasabi furikake and filled with seasoned beef, or onigiri made with rice cooked with wakame and then filled with dried baby anchovies, and other types of non-garden variety rice balls are rapidly becoming the new face of onigiri! Onigiri made with furikake are especially popular, as there are so many delicious flavors to choose from, and they go well with many kinds of fillings; and for those folks who aren't wild about plain white rice onigiri, furikake is just the ticket!
OK, now it's time to make onigiri with your impeccably clean hands! Lining your scrupulously washed palms with plastic wrap, or wearing thin plastic gloves can give an extra layer of hygiene.
Shapes of Onigiri
Rounded onigiri are not completely round; they are lightly pressed front and back to give them slightly flat features.
This is the standard onigiri shape, and it is a bit trickier to form than the rounded onigiri. The rice is placed in the palm of the non-dominant hand (left, if you are right-handed) which is slightly bent to form an angle, and the top is gently compressed by the right hand which is tented to form a triangular shape. The rice ball is turned several times, gently squeezing all the while, until 3 angles have been formed, making a nice triangular shape.
Tawara (gata means shape) is the original straw bale that was used for storing and transporting uncooked rice. This shape is probably the best shape for onigiri that are placed in bento boxes. Compared with the rounded and triangular shaped onigiri, this shape is a little more complicated to make. Evenly curving all the fingers except the thumb of your non-dominant hand, hold the rice in your palm and gently compress it into a cylindrical shape. Use the fingers of your dominant hand to gently rotate the rice ball by its outer edges until you get a nice oblong shape.
To the Japanese, rice+salt+fillings+nori all add up to the ultimate indigenous comfort food, onigiri. Intrinsic to onigiri is a sense of nostalgia, many positive memories of happy occasions, a link to familial affection—a thoroughly satisfying feeling. Marukai has all the basics and all the fixin's you need to make onigiri; rice, nori, furikake, and ingredients for fillings. We've got standard onigiri molds, too, as well as ones in charming shapes, bento boxes and other containers to hold your delicious onigiri! For those on the go, there's a great variety of fresh ready-made onigiri in our deli section. Whether it's your first time trying a delicious onigiri, or a snack or light meal that you like to often enjoy, the appeal of onigiri is unmistakable! Orthodox flavors or trendy new ones—anything goes! And that shape you're trying to make? Well, remember—practice makes perfect!
Super Easy Yukari Furikake Onigiri
Makes 1 large onigiri
1 pack (6.34 oz) Jonetsu Kakaku cooked rice 1/2 tsp Mishima Yukari furikake (adjust the amount to your taste) 1/2 toasted nori sheet
1) Heat rice in microwave according to directions on package. 2) Add furikake to the warm rice, gently folding in until it is uniformly spread throughout the rice. 3) When rice has cooled just enough so you can handle it, place it on a large piece of plastic wrap and mold it into whatever shape you like. 4) If desired, wrap in nori right before eating. Enjoy!