What is onigiri?
Onigiri is cooked rice, seasoned with salt and herbs, which is compressed into savoury balls, triangles or slices. Onigiri sometimes have a filling of (leftover) meat, fish or vegetables, and are often decorated on the outside.
Onigiri is the practical, relaxed, fun sister of the more serious sushi. The chef does not have to follow centuries-old traditions and may even unleash his own creativity. The results are sometimes downright cute: onigiri with small faces or “dressed up” like rabbits, for example.
Japanese often make onigiri at home but it can also be purchased en route: in supermarkets, at train stations and even in (candy) vending machines. It is a frequently-seen filling of lunch boxes, but also a snack that makes the Japanese think nostalgically about long-forgotten school trips and family trips. The rice balls or triangles (the triangles are the traditional form) are usually packaged in plastic wrap or in a bamboo tray.
East vs. west
In Hawaii, where many Japanese emigrants settled at the end of the nineteenth century, they came up with a very special variant of onigiri: with corned beef. Small slices of corned beef are placed on a block of rice and wrapped with a strip of nori. Other typical western fillings for onigiri are chopped olives, anchovies and sausage meat. Japanese people prefer a traditional filling, such as plum, salted salmon or okaka (bonito flakes flavoured with soy sauce).
How to make onigiri
Cook short-grain Japanese rice and some salt – nothing else is initially required. Most chefs, however, pimp their onigiri with some extra treats, such as finely chopped herbs or vegetables. The balls are shaped by hand, with a cooking ring or in a tea towel, and can envelop a small filling that can vary from umeboshi (plum) to tuna or fried chicken. Once formed, the onigiri can be decorated by rolling them in furikake (a spice mixture with dried fish and sesame seeds) or sesame seeds; wrap a strip of nori around it or put a face of two peas (eyes) and a small bell pepper (mouth) on top.
To make the yaki onigiri variant, the rice creations are also baked in a frying pan. Each time the onigiri is turned in the pan, the top is briefly brushed with soy sauce. The yaki onigiri are ready when the whole rice ball is brown and crispy all around.
How to eat
Onigiri are often put in a bento box (Japanese lunch box) so they are very suitable as a portable meal, but also as a snack.
Serve your onigiri with a portion of edamame next to it for a well-balanced lunch or a small main meal.