Onigiri: The Essential Rice Ball   おにぎり

Date of publication :
Onigiri on the shelves in a konbini

Onigiri on the shelves in a konbini

A grilled salmon-filled onigiri

A grilled salmon-filled onigiri

Yaki-onigiri

Yaki-onigiri

Onigiri for children

How cute! Onigiri for children are often decorated

Rice triangles

Onigiri (rice balls), also called omusubu, are the Japanese version of a sandwich: practical, cheap snack and filling. In the store, they are usually a triangle shape, while the homemade version is often round. Discover this delicious Japanese snack.

Onigiri has existed in Japan for centuries, travelers took them on their long journeys across the country. Nowadays, they are the essential food of the picnics, they accompany the children to the school, are very popular for workers who have lunch on the go, and of anyone who wants a satisfying little snack.

WHAT IS ONIGIRI?

The name "onigiri" comes from the verb "nigiru" which means "to press / shape with his hands" and indicates the way in which the rice is pressed in his hands to form a dumpling of the desired shape, generally round or triangular.

Although the recipe is basic: rice cooked in water that is traditionally stuffed with crumbled salmon or a dried plum, which is shaped into a ball, the preparation is not so simple. The grains of rice sometimes stick to your hands and it requires a lot of expertise to make a perfect ball or triangle that does not crumble once you bite into it.

For many Japanese, the onigiri is more than an ordinary snack, it evokes memories of childhood and sometimes maternal love since the mothers make them for the snacks to take to school or on an excursion. Handmade food par excellence, each mother has her own way of shaping it and adding their favorite ingredients. Recently, some onigiri can be compared to real works of art: they are given the shape of a heart or a star or even small figures carved in rice and decorated with nori (dried seaweed).

WHERE TO TRY ONIGIRI?

Paradoxically, these rice balls are rarely eaten at home. In any case, not during a meal. On the other hand, one can find on the menus of izakaya (kind of tavern), they are often yaki onigiri, large onigiri, covered with miso and grilled.

Some shops are also specialized in making these dumplings. Onigiri Asakusa Yadoroku, for example, is the oldest rice dumpling restaurant in Tokyo. Established in 1954. Open for lunch but also for dinner, you can sit at the counter and see the staff making dumplings, as in some sushi restaurants.


A KEY PRODUCT IN THE KONBINI

You can also buy them at the supermarket fresh counters and in the konbini. They are a very popular product of Japanese convenience stores (millions of them are sold daily) it was not always the case.

Considered too ordinary a product, the first konbini (in this case the 7-Eleven, whose first store of this chain opened in 1974 in Tokyo) did not dare to offer them for sale. It was not until 1978 that they appeared on the shelves of some 7-Eleven and it was not until 1983, with the invention of the tuna-mayonnaise onigiri, that they won over customers.

Very inexpensive (from ¥ 100, around 60 euro cents), nutritious (onigiri rice is indeed very compact), and now stuffed with a wide variety of ingredients, they have become an essential product.

HOW TO UNPACK AN ONIGIRI: JAPANESE ART AND WAY

Notice to fans: opening a konbini onigiri can be difficult for the uninitiated, especially if wrapped in nori. They are in fact doubly wrapped in plastic, a first layer used to isolate the rice from the seaweed leaf to keep it dry and crisp while the second used to protect the entire onigiri. It is, therefore, necessary to carefully remove these two layers so as not to break the onigiri, and not to leave the nori sheet in the plastic protection!

This video will help you learn how to unwrap an onigiri:

Traditionally, onigiri were filled with salted and / or brined condiments that kept well (especially umebashoshi, salted plum). Now, with current preservation techniques, they are stuffed with all kinds of garnishes.

JAPANESE VOCABULARY GUIDE TO EAT ONIGIRI

As for flavors, it can sometimes be difficult to navigate, especially when it's written in Japanese. Here is a quick guide:

  • うなぎ   eel
  • ツナマヨ   tuna mayonnaise
  • サルモン (or 鮭)   salmon
  • 明太子   spicy cod roe
  • 鱈子   salted hake roe
  • チキンマヨ   chicken mayonnaise
  • イクラ   salmon roe

Vegetarian Onigiri :

  • 梅   plum
  • 野沢菜   pickled turnip 
  • チーズ   cheese
  • キムチ   Korean spicy pickled cabbage (kimchi)
  • 赤飯  azuki and black sesame rice

The rice can also be flavored with seaweed flakes, sesame oil, or dried bonito.

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