Onigiri (Japanese Filled Rice Balls)

After the craziness and indulgence of the holidays, we tend to slow down here at the Walbacz homestead in many ways, as well as take time to reflect on the last year and plan for the coming year. Some of the things we take stock of are our pantry and food supplies, especially dry, shelf-stable goods and frozen items.

Which means.

Making room.

By eating everything in the house!

Okay, we’re not that dramatic. But our meal plans for the month focus on using up these items that take up space, that we tend to forget about in the warmer months because hello, fresh produce! This meal planning also helps us save money, as we’re focused on not purchasing more food for the coming week(s). So, we have a repertoire of meals that easily use up bits and bobs, as well as take well to changing flavors.

Enter onigiri, or Japanese rice balls.

Now, if you grew up watching way too much television like I did, and/or you’re a huge anime dork, you might remember a little cartoon called Pokemon. And aside from the gratuitous and questionable animal rights violations, the show also featured a lot of food, one of which was said onigiri.

The characters (especially the main guy) would absolutely devour rice ball after rice ball and, me being the constantly-hungry kid that I was, wanted to live in the TV and eat right alongside them. Because surely, if they’re eating literal piles of the stuff, they must be delicious.

(Side note: If you, like me, grew up watching the American version, you should be insulted that the producers thought that American children were too stupid/culturally insensitive to see these as anything but “donuts.” Yes I’m still mad. And hungry.)

Aaaaaanyway. Put simply, onigiri are rice balls filled (or sometimes not filled!) with basically anything you desire. Sometimes the filling is right in the middle of the rice ball, while other times it’s distributed evenly throughout the onigiri. And sometimes, they’re just fried in a bit of oil and soy sauce for an easy, cheap meal.

Ours have a purple tint due to using a combination of black and white short-grain rice. Delicious and pretty!

They’re often wrapped in nori (the same seaweed used in wrapping sushi). We’re lazy around here and don’t usually bother, but it does add a nice seafood-y element to the flavor, so I recommend trying both plain and nori-wrapped. I’ve also sprinkled mine with sesame seeds. Some common flavors and fillings that we’ve tried include:

  • ground pork seasoned with soy sauce, mirin, and sugar
  • peas
  • okaka: bonito (katsuoboshi) flakes and soy sauce
  • sliced tamago (seasoned egg pancake)
  • umeboshi (salted preserved plum. Ooooh so salty!)
  • seasoned tuna with mayo

…but really, you can use anything you want. Seriously. You could even fill them with peanut butter and jelly (although I wouldn’t recommend it, as you use salt on your hands as you form them. Also seaweed). But heck, if you wanted a taco meat filling, or pickles, or spicy tofu, or whatever you use to fill a savory sandwich/sushi roll/taco, go ahead, and let me know how it goes.

Mmmm, short grain sushi rice. Starchy!

The method for making onigiri is simple, although the shaping takes a bit of practice (if you care about pretty shapes, that is). Like with sushi, you’ll use a Japanese short-grain sushi rice, thoroughly rinsed of starch, and if you’re shaping with your bare hands, you’ll want to keep a bowl of water handy to keep those pesky sticky grains from gluing to your skin.

You can also use a bit of plastic wrap to shape and gently squeeze the rice ball into your desired shape. We happen to keep bits of reused, washed wrap around for just such occasions, so don’t go wasting plastic wrap and throwing it out for this one purpose. I’m watching you.

The recipe below gives the basic method, as well as some of the variations we’ve used. The keys in shaping are a) not to over fill your onigiri and b) not to squeeze them too hard, lest ye squish the rice beyond its holding capacity. Also, salt your hands or wrap between each rice ball – it both flavors the plain rice, as well as keeps them preserved for longer.

All right, enough of that. Let’s make onigiri!

Onigiri (Japanese Filled Rice Balls)

  • Servings: about 12-16 onigiri
  • Print

A cheap, tasty meal that’s a great alternative to sandwiches in the lunchbox! Don’t be tempted to overfill the rice balls - otherwise, they’ll fall apart and you’ll be sad. Also, gentle is the way to go when shaping. Each filling variation at the bottom will make about 6-8 onigiri, so you can mix and match.


you will need:

  • 2 ¼ c uncooked white short-grain sushi rice
  • water for cooking the rice (we use a rice cooker that measures the water for us, but it’s usually close to 3 cups)
  • kosher or sea salt (if using table salt, you’ll want to use very little when shaping)
  • desired fillings – see below for variations
  • nori sheets, cut into 2×3 in strips (optional)
  • toasted sesame seeds, for topping (optional)

Directions

  1. Wash your rice. Do not skip this step – rinsing the rice of excess starch ensures a softer rice ball, especially after refrigeration, and easier shaping. I usually do this in two ways: I put the rice in a fine-mesh strainer and run cold water over it for about 1 minute, until the water runs mostly clear. You can also put the water in a large bowl, cover with cold water, and scoop the rice with your hands in the bowl (called “sharpening”) to agitate it. Drain the starchy water, and repeat 2-3 more times until the water runs mostly clear.
  2. Add the rice to a pot with a lid or a rice cooker, add water, and cook according to package or rice cooker directions. Or, if you’re good and don’t have packages to refer to, bring the rice to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer/steam, covered, for about 15-20 minutes until the rice is soft. Allow to cool until warm (above room temperature, but not steaming hot).
  3. Prepare a bowl with water and another with kosher or sea salt. (Again, if you’re using table salt, which I do not recommend, use only the tiniest of sprinkles for each onigiri.) Wet your hands, pinch a bit of salt into your palm, and scoop about a 2-tablespoon ball of rice on top of the salt. Make a small indentation in the middle of the rice ball, and place a small amount (about ½ to 1 tsp) of filling into the indent.
  4. Gently squeeze the rice around the filling, forming a ball or triangle shape. If using nori strips, wrap the nori underneath the rice ball/triangle, and place on a plate. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, if desired. Repeat with remaining rice and filling. Store uneaten onigiri in an airtight container, and ideally bring back to room temperature before serving.
  5. Variations: Seasoned Pork: Probably my favorite filling, and doesn’t require you to put the filling in the middle. In a small bowl, combine 7 oz ground pork, 2 tsp grated fresh ginger, 1 tbsp soy sauce, 1 tbsp mirin, 1 tbsp sake or white wine, and 2 tsp raw sugar, and let sit for 5-10 minutes. Brown the seasoned pork mixture in a pan over medium heat, and allow to cool to room temperature. Mix in with the cooled rice, and proceed to make onigiri.

    *Note: Mirin, a sweetened wine condiment, can be purchased at Asian groceries, as well as some supermarkets.

    Tuna Mayo: Easy with pantry clearing! In a small bowl, combine 1 tbsp each of soy sauce and mirin. In a small frying pan with a little oil, add 5 oz of drained, canned tuna (use the good chunk light kind for texture, and preferably safe catch and sustainable, of course) and cook for about one minute, stirring occasionally. Add soy sauce mixture and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the tuna has fully absorbed the soy sauce mixture. Allow to cool briefly. Add to the center of your onigiri (about 1 tsp), along with a dollop of mayo (we use spicy mayo, because spicy) and form your rice ball.

    Okaka Onigiri: Also a good pantry staple, provided you have the wonderful shelf-stable ingredient of katsuoboshi, or dried bonito flakes. In a small bowl, combine a large pinch (about ⅛ c, perhaps) of katsuoboshi with 1 ½ tsp soy sauce. Use small pinches (½ tsp) of this mixture as the center of your onigiri.

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