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Onigiri rice balls have been loved by Japanese people for centuries, and they are still loved very much today. The onigiri first appeared in a book called ‘Fudoki’ published in A.D. 713, so it has at least 1300 years of history! Fact: in some regions, people call it ‘omusubi’ instead.
What Are Onigiri? Are They Snack Food?
An onigiri is a small ball or triangle of rice. It is eaten as traditional Japanese picnic food and often put in a packed lunch (bento) or eaten as a snack.
While the simplest of onigiri are rice, salt wrapped in a sheet of nori seaweed, they can also have fillings. Traditional fillings may contain unique Japanese ingredients like konbu seaweed, bonito fish flakes, and umeboshi plum. The onigiri is formed by hand into a triangle or a ball shape.
Onigiri are finger food, just the right size to easily hold with one hand. It is so easy and simple to cook, and, depending on the fillings, can be healthy, so why not try making one for yourself, your family or friends.
How to Make Onigiri
It is quite easy to make an onigiri. You only need cooked rice, salt, some water, and nori seaweed as per your preference.
– Onigiri Recipe –
1. First, cook some rice. Then let it cool down a little after it is ready.
2. Apply a pinch of salt evenly on your palms with some water which prevents rice from sticking to your hands when you are making it.
3. Take some rice onto your hand and make the rice into a ball shape by gripping it with both hands. If you want some fillings in your onigiri, place your ingredients in the center of the rice before folding the rice around it into a ball shape. Finally, you can wrap nori seaweed around the outside of the onigiri if you like. That’s it, time to marvel at your creation!
Tip: If you prefer the nori wrapper to be crunchy when you bite into the onigiri, wait until just before you start eating to wrap the nori around the rice ball, otherwise it will go soft.
Fillings Loved by Japanese People of All Ages
One of the reasons why onigiri is so popular is because you can choose your favorite from many different fillings. If you visit a supermarket or a convenience store, you’ll find a huge selection of onigiri.
Here are six of the most popular fillings for a homemade onigiri:
■Grilled salmon (sake or shake) seasoned with salt or flavored with teriyaki sauce
Cooking tips: A great idea is to use leftover grilled or fried salmon from the previous night’s dinner. Or failing that you can buy a jar of cooked and ready to eat salmon flakes, or take the time to grill some fresh.
■Sour Japanese plum (umeboshi) – Popular with the older generation
Cooking tips: each brand of umeboshi, or the region they come from has a slightly different taste and flavor so why not search for your favorite.
■Tuna and Mayo – this type is especially popular with younger people. A safe place to start when trying out onigiri, popular also with non-Japanese!
Cooking tips: grab a tin of tuna and a tube of mayo, drain the tuna can and mix with the mayo.
■ Kombu seaweed with sesame seeds cooked in teriyaki sauce.
Cooking tips: you can buy prepared kombu or could try your hand at cooking it from scratch. Here is a recipe for kombu tsukudani that can be used in onigiri. It’s quick and easy and once you’ve made the kombu tsukudani, stuff it in your rice and roll it into an ongiri.
■Dried bonito flakes (okaka)
Cooking tips: buy a pack of katsuobushi (bonito flakes) and mix with a dash of soy sauce.
■Fish eggs – raw or cooked
Tarako – cooked fish eggs
Karashi mentaiko – spicy chili fish eggs
Raw but preserved fish eggs with salt and chili is called ‘karashi-mentaiko’. Cooked fish eggs are called ‘tarako.’ Tarako has a milder and more subtle taste. Mentaiko is softer, saltier, and spicier.
Some of these six fillings are traditionally preserved foods that have been eaten for hundreds of years by Japanese people, which is why they are perfect for lunch or snacks on the go that can withgo being refrigerated for few hours.
Passed Down from Generations in Japanese Families
I still remember my mom used to make kombu seaweed, umeboshi plum, okaka and salmon onigiri for my bento (pack lunch) and as after school snacks. My grandmother also used to make onigiri for me when I visited her. Now I am a mom of two young active kids, and I also make onigiri for them as my mom and grandmother did for me. The tradition has been passed down the generations, and still, it continues in my family. It is not just my family, but the majority of families do the same in Japan.
Onigiri: Cheap and Cheerful Snack
Depending on your preferred fillings, making tasty homemade sandwiches in Japan can be expensive. Bread is more expensive than rice, and quality cheese and ham are hard to find at a reasonable price. So onigiri are better value.
Are you considering making homemade onigiri for your bento now? Even if you are still not sure about making one by yourself, you can easily buy onigiri in Japan, and it’s fun to try out a lot of different fillings to discover your favorite!