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Japanese Onigiri Rice Balls

Onigiri rice balls are a favorite picnic and snack food in Japan. Onigiri is a popular carry out food item in Japanese convenience stores, and is a common item found in bento boxed lunches. Simple to make and delicious to eat, onigiri is a staple food item in Japan.

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What is Onigiri?

Literally meaning “to hold on to,” onigiri is a staple Japanese snack food that in its purest form is essentially a ball of rice. The simplest onigiri is in fact a palm-sized serving of salt-seasoned rice shaped and compressed into a ball.

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In order to add flavor and avoid directly handling the sticky rice, onigiri is often loosely wrapped with a rectangular piece of nori seaweed. Fillings like tuna, salmon, konbu, and umeboshi (sour pickled plum) may be added in the middle. Sometimes the rice balls are basted with soy sauce and grilled (yaki-onigiri). And onigiri are frequently shaped into a triangle rather than a ball. So while onigiri is in essence a simple rice ball, there is in fact a fantastic diversity of onigiri shapes and flavors.

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Varieties of Onigiri Rice Balls

Popular onigiri fillings include tuna salad, salmon flakes, seafood salad, konbu (a type of sea vegatable), umeboshi (a sour bright-red pickled Japanese plum), tempura, and even natto (eat this one at your own risk!).

Some onigiri have the filling mixed in with the rice and then shaped.

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Yaki-onigiri is onigiri that has been grilled with a soy flavor, so that it’s slightly crispy on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside.

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Where to Buy Onigiri Rice Balls

The most popular place to buy onigiri is a Japanese convenience store. Go into any convenience store and you’ll find a fantastic variety of onigiri.

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You can also find specialty onigiri shops in the food section of many department stores, where the onigiri is presumably of higher quality.

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How to Eat Onigiri

Many onigiri are packaged so that the nori seaweed paper is separated from the rice until it is time to eat, so depending on the type of onigiri you buy, unwrapping and eating these rice balls can be a complicated affair. Although the instructions for unwrapping are in Japanese, they are usually numbered as well, so just try to “open by numbers.” The basic trick is to open while leaving the piece of nori unscathed so that you can remove it and wrap it around the rice triangle.

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If you buy an onigiri that doesn’t involve this reverse origami puzzle, simply unwrap and eat.

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How to Make Onigiri | Simple Onigiri Recipe

bullet4 Japanese Onigiri Rice BallsOnigiri is quite simple to make. Cook up a batch of medium-grain rice, preferably in a rice cooker, and then let cool sufficiently.

bullet4 Japanese Onigiri Rice BallsWash your hands thoroughly. With your hands still wet, rub a bit of salt on your hands and then grab a handful of rice.

bullet4 Japanese Onigiri Rice BallsHold the rice in the palm of one hand while using your other hand to squeeze the ball into the shape of a triangle. Keep your hands wet so the rice won’t stick.

bullet4 Japanese Onigiri Rice BallsRotate the ball so that the side that was on the bottom is now on one side, and the repeat, until you have a nice triangle shape. It may take a bit of practice until you can form a perfect triangle.

bullet4 Japanese Onigiri Rice BallsCut a full sheet of nori seaweed into quarters, and then fold the nori underneath and around the triangle, kind of as if it were a bun holding a hot dog.

bullet4 Japanese Onigiri Rice BallsEnjoy!

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This is just a very basic onigiri recipe. Expand your palate by sprinkling a few sesame seeds on top, or by adding tuna, salmon, or virtually any other filling in the middle of your ball of rice before squeezing and forming it.

If you find yourself hungry while sightseeing in Japan and need a little snack to tie you over for a few hours, do as the Japanese do and grab some onigiri rice balls!

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