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Stuffed with a variety of fillings and flavors, Onigiri, or Japanese rice balls, make an ideal quick snack and are a fun alternative to sandwiches for lunch. In this recipe, you’ll learn how to make onigiri using common ingredients for rice balls in Japan.

Onigiri (Japanese Rice Balls) on a plate.

Onigiri (おにぎり), or sometimes called Omusubi (おむすび), are Japanese rice balls. They are what I call the magical food of the Japanese. Tender, toothsome rice made portable, they are the classic comfort food for picnics (especially during the sakura viewing), bento lunch boxes, quick grab-and-go snacks, hiking trips, movie snacks, etc.

Growing up in Japan, I have the fondest memories of helping my mom shape freshly cooked rice into triangles and pack them neatly into my bento boxes before running off to school. 

Make this classic Onigiri (Japanese Rice Balls) for your school lunch and potluck! #onigiri #riceball | Easy Japanese Recipes at JustOneCookbook.com

What is Onigiri (Omusubi)

Onigiri (おにぎり) are Japanese rice balls made of steamed rice that have been compressed into a triangular, ball, or cylinder shape and are usually wrapped in nori seaweed sheet. They can be flavored lightly with just salt or filled with a variety of fillings.

Onigiri – Omusubi – Nigirimeshi

The word “onigiri” is more commonly used throughout Japan, but it’s also known as nigirimeshi (握り飯) or omusubi (おむすび). It’s also said that rice balls are called “omusubi in eastern Japan and “onigiri” in western Japan. However, on the contrary, there is a theory that it was called “onigiri” in eastern Japan and “omusubi” in western Japan.

Is Onigiri Sushi?

For the uninitiated, onigiri are sometimes misunderstood as a type of sushi but they are not.

One of the key differences between onigiri and sushi is that onigiri starts from a base of plain steamed rice, while sushi is made of steamed rice seasoned with vinegar, salt, and sugar.

👉🏻 See more details in How To Make Rice and How To Make Sushi Rice.

When to Eat Onigiri

Adored by all ages, onigiri prove their importance and popularity in Japanese everyday lives. We make the rice balls for school and work lunches, and for many outdoor activities and events.

In some ways, they are the Japanese idea of energy bars. We snack on onigiri when we need a quick boost of energy and sustenance.

Where to Get Onigiri

Outside of the home, you can literally find the rice balls everywhere: konbini convenience stores, airports, cute cafes, and specialty stores.

Onigiri (Japanese Rice Balls) on a plate.

Brief History and Its Role in Japanese Culture

Deemed as the very first traveling food, onigiri were invented before the existence of refrigeration as a means to preserve fresh rice longer so it can be brought along to feed travelers, samurai, or soldiers on the road, or farmers in the farm fields.

The method was to fill the rice with a salty or sour ingredient as natural preservatives and lightly compact them into portable food that can be carried along and eaten with hands. To keep the rice safe, salt was the initial key ingredient used in making the onigiri.

Today you can find these rice balls in so many varieties and forms, but the basics of making onigiri remain the same.

If you’re an anime or manga (Japanese comics) fan, you have most likely seen the onigiri show up in many storylines of these cultural outputs. The most memorable appearance has to be in a scene in Spirited Away, where a boy named Haku offered Chihiro, the main character, some onigiri in the hope to comfort her. As the young girl took a bite of the rice ball, tears started rolling down her cheeks. It tells the powerful connection between food and home and the emotions involved. As you can see, onigiri means a lot to the Japanese.

Onigiri Ingredients

For the most basic and comforting onigiri, you’ll need only 2 ingredients. That’s right! All you need is cooked rice and good quality nori seaweed.

  • Japanese Short-Grain Rice – Commonly labeled as sushi rice outside of Japan, Japanese short-grain rice is the rice that we use in most Japanese cooking. It gives you the perfect chewy, tender, and slightly sticky texture. I personally recommend koshihikari. Please do not substitute it with jasmine or any other types of rice as they will fall apart. Wish to learn more about Japanese rice? Read this post.
  • Nori Seaweed – This is the same seaweed wrapper that we use to wrap sushi. You can find it at Japanese/Asian grocers, well-stocked grocery stores, or online.
  • Optional Fillings – We’ll discuss them below.

Onigiri Filling

Yes, you can fill onigiri with whatever your heart desires, but I’ll share with you some of the most common fillings for onigiri in Japan.

Onigiri Rice Balls | Easy Japanese Recipes at JustOneCookbook.com
Shake, umeboshi, okaka, kombu, and tuna mayo
  • shake [pronounced as sha-keh] (salted salmon)
  • umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum)
  • okaka (bonito flakes moistened with soy sauce)
  • kombu (simmered kombu seaweed)
  • tuna mayo (canned tuna with Japanese mayonnaise)
  • tarako (salted cod roe)
  • furikake (rice seasonings to sprinkle all over)

Now if you are ready to get creative, look no further than your dinner leftovers. I’ve used my leftovers from Chicken Karaage and Shrimp Tempura to fill my onigiri. Instead of plain steamed rice, you can also use Takikomi Gohan (mixed rice) or Corn Rice.

Onigiri Shapes and Variations

You can make many different shapes of onigiri, and the most common ones are:

  • Triangular
  • Cylindrical (shape of rice bale)
  • Round/circular
  • Cylindrical
  • Creative – Some home cooks even take their onigiri to another high fashion level by shaping the rice balls into so many cute animals or character-based shapes!

We also enjoy onigiri in these popular variations:

Nori Wrapping

There are different ways to wrap the nori around the rice balls. You can cut a sheet of nori into thin strips and wrap the nori around the cylindrical or triangular rice ball shape (this is more like a decoration).

You can also cut the nori sheet in thirds and wrap the rice ball with the nori.

Some prefer to wrap the rice balls when they are warm so the nori will stick to the rice (but it will be soggy/moist) but the majority of people prefer to keep the nori as crisp as possible.

You can buy this onigiri plastic wrapper that allows you to keep the nori crispy until you’re ready to eat (similar to Japanese convenience store-style onigiri).

A Japanese blue and white plate containing Yaki Onigiri - Japanese Grilled Rice Balls).

5 Tips for Making Perfect Onigiri

1. Use freshly cooked rice

I strongly recommend using freshly cooked rice instead of older rice when you make onigiri, especially if you are a beginner. Transfer the freshly cooked rice to a baking sheet or sushi oke (hangiri). Let cool just slightly: The rice should be warm when you make onigiri.

Always keep the rice and rice balls covered with a plastic or a damp towel so the rice will not dry.

2. Wet and salt your hands

It’s important to wet your hands with water to prevent the rice from sticking. Prepare a bowl of water next to your working station. Salt both your hands and rub to spread all around. Salting helps to preserve the onigiri for a longer time as well as flavoring the onigiri.

3. Give just enough pressure

Your hands should be just firm enough when pressing the onigiri so the rice doesn’t fall apart when you shape them. You don’t want to squeeze the rice too tight. You rotate the rice balls every time you give a genetle pressure. After rotating 3-5 times, the rice ball should be in good shape.

4. Mark your rice ball with a filling

If you add a filling, make sure to put a small amount of filling on the rice ball (such as on a tip of the triangle shape) to mark which filling is inside.

5. Wrap the nori before you eat

Wrap the nori seaweed before you serve. The nori texture for the rice balls is up to your preference. Some onigiri shops sell rice balls that are already wrapped in nori so it’s not crispy. And sometimes nori is packed separately, so you can enjoy the crispy nori. We have both styles.

If you serve at the party, you can quickly wrap them right before you serve, or serve the rice balls and nori separately and make it optional.

Make this classic Onigiri (Japanese Rice Balls) for your school lunch and potluck! #onigiri #riceball | Easy Japanese Recipes at JustOneCookbook.com

Frequent Asked Questions

Why does my nori get soggy and wet?

Nori gets soggy as soon as it absorbs moisture. If you prefer crispy nori for your onigiri, I recommend wrapping the nori right before you eat onigiri. Make sure the nori is kept in a resealable bag to avoid getting stale.

Why does my nori get gummy?

I recommend getting better quality nori, preferably imported from Japan. It’s very unfortunate but nori available in grocery stores here is not flavorful and the texture becomes gummy when wet/moist. I always get imported nori from Japan (I usually pick the most expensive nori at Nijiya Market) and it’s pretty good. We can get better quality nori in Japan at a decent price, but not outside of Japan yet.

Do I have to make onigiri right before I pack for lunch?

If you want to make onigiri for lunch the next day but don’t want to wake up early, here’s my tip. You can wrap the finished onigiri (in plastic wrap) with a thick kitchen towel. The kitchen towel protects the rice balls from being too cold in the refrigerator. Rice gets hard in the refrigerator but with this easy trick, your onigiri will be cool enough to stay safe.

Do you serve onigiri cold?

You can enjoy onigiri warm or at room temperature, so they’re perfect in your lunchbox or as a portable snack on the go. You can even plate them up as a tasty appetizer!

Do you think I can involve my children to make rice balls?

Yes! The best part about making onigiri at home is you can always engage your little ones as their ‘craft day in the kitchen.’ Make it fun and enjoyable! You can use this onigiri mold to make it easier to create a triangle shape.

Like everything else, practice makes perfect when comes to making onigiri. For a visual guide, you can watch my video and see the step-by-step instructions below.

Tenmusu | Easy Japanese Recipes at JustOneCookbook.com

More Onigiri Recipes You’ll Enjoy

Make this classic Onigiri (Japanese Rice Balls) for your school lunch and potluck! #onigiri #riceball | Easy Japanese Recipes at JustOneCookbook.com

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Onigiri (Japanese Rice Balls) on a plate.

Onigiri (Japanese Rice Balls)

Stuffed with a variety of fillings and flavors, Onigiri, or Japanese rice balls, make an ideal quick snack and are a fun alternative to sandwiches for lunch. In this recipe, you’ll learn how to make onigiri using common ingredients for rice balls in Japan.

Prep Time: 30 mins

Cook Time: 30 mins

Total Time: 1 hr

Ingredients 

 

For the Japanese Salted Salmon (Quick Version)

Japanese Ingredient Substitution: If you want substitutes for Japanese condiments and ingredients, click here.

Instructions 

To Prepare the Steamed Rice

To Prepare the Onigiri Fillings

Alternative Method of Making the Onigiri

To Store

  • Onigiri (or any rice dish) gets hard when you refrigerate it. The cold air makes the rice dry and hard, which is perfect for fried rice. I don’t recommend making onigiri ahead of time. But if you really need to, my trick is to wrap the onigiri with thick kitchen towels and store it in the fridge. The onigiri will be cool and safe but should not get cold.

Nutrition

Calories: 174 kcal · Carbohydrates: 29 g · Protein: 7 g · Fat: 3 g · Saturated Fat: 1 g · Polyunsaturated Fat: 1 g · Monounsaturated Fat: 1 g · Trans Fat: 1 g · Cholesterol: 11 mg · Sodium: 341 mg · Potassium: 109 mg · Fiber: 1 g · Sugar: 1 g · Vitamin A: 56 IU · Vitamin C: 3 mg · Calcium: 11 mg · Iron: 2 mg

Author: Namiko Chen

Course: Bento, Side Dish, Snack

Cuisine: Japanese

Keyword: rice, seaweed

©JustOneCookbook.com Content and photographs are copyright protected. Sharing of this recipe is both encouraged and appreciated. Copying and/or pasting full recipes to any website or social media is strictly prohibited. Please view my photo use policy here.

Editor’s Note: The post was originally published on September 5, 2012. It was updated with a new video and images on September 29, 2017. The post was republished with more content on May 8, 2022.



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