Japanese rice balls, also known as omusubi or onigiri, are mostly shaped into triangles or rounds by hand. They are the staple of Japanese lunchboxes (bento), and they are fun to make.
Just like sandwiches in the west, Japanese rice balls can be found in almost any convenience store across japan, and they are ideal for an easy and quick snack.
In the past few months, onigiri has become very popular in food trucks, where they are freshly made, and grilled lightly—as ordered. However, did you know that making Japanese rice balls at home is easy and irresistibly economical?
You can opt to mix the rice with flavors like furikake—which is Japanese salt and pepper and consists of sea salt, sesame seeds, bonito flake, nori, and a pinch of sugar, which is mostly optional.
Typically, Japanese rice balls are wrapped in nori—dried seaweed—or rolled in sesame seeds. You can also consider topping your onigiri with shichimi togarashi—a Japanese spice made out of the orange peel, ground sesame seeds, as well as chili pepper.
Tips and Techniques For Making Japanese Rice Balls
Always make sure that you use freshly cooked rice
This is the key step that will ensure that you get the perfect onigiri results. Before making the rice balls, allow your rice to cook slightly. However, you need to note that the rice needs to be warm, but not cold when preparing the rice balls.
Make your hands wet
Always make sure that you wet your hands with water as this prevents the rice from sticking on your hands. You should always have a bowl of water on your countertop, as this makes things easier.
Rub some salt on your hands
You should salt both your hands and then rub the salt to spread evenly on your hands. This assists in preserving the onigiri, as well as flavoring the rice balls.
Apply a considerable amount of pressure
Ensure that you don’t apply too much pressure on your rice as this prevents the rice from falling apart as you shape your rice balls—you can opt to shape them into a typical ball, cylinder, or triangle shapes. Avoid squeezing the rice too tight.
Use a kitchen towel to preserve them if you want to use them in the following day
If you are preparing the rice balls for lunch the next day, but you don’t want to prepare them on an actual day, you can use the following trick—wrap the finished rice balls in a plastic wrap, and then wrap them using a kitchen towel.
This protects the rice ball from being excessively cold as you keep them in your fridge. It’s important to note that rice gets hard when refrigerated—but this easy trick will ensure that your rice balls stay cool and safe.
Here are a few recipes that will allow you to enjoy onigiri at home without much hassle.
Onigiri Japanese rice balls recipe
- 4 cups japanese sushi rice steamed
- 1 dash salt to taste
- 1 tsp black sesame seeds optional
- 2 sheets nori seaweed
FOR THE FILLINGS
- ½ cup ume (pickled plum)
- ½ cup grilled salted salmon
- Steam the rice in a rice cooker or cooking pot for 8 minutes, drain and let it cool off
- Meanwhile, cut the nori sheet into 8 – 9 strips, and then put around ½ cup of steamed rice in a rice bowl
- Make sure that you wet your hands using water to prevent the rice from sticking
- Rub your hands with some salt
- Now, place the steamed rice on your hand—and make sure that it is thick and dense
- You can now put your fillings—like grilled salmon or umeboshi on the rice and then push the fillings into the rice a bit
- Next, hold the rice between your palms
- Press it lightly using both palms to form a round, cylinder, or triangle shape, and then roll the rice ball with your hands, pressing it lightly
- Using a strip or two of nori, wrap the rice ball or even sprinkle some sesame seeds on them
- And of course, if you like the smiley faces for kids, or childlike dinner guests 🙂 cut some of the nori into eyes and a smiling mouth for the triangle
When following this recipe, it is important to note that the fillings can vary—and you should make sure that you use your favorite fillings. You can put almost anything you want in Japanese rice balls.
Try putting pickled plums, grilled salmon, pork, beef, dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi) with soy sauce seasoning, turkey, or tuna with mayonnaise.
If you feel like you want some warm meal, just toast your rice balls lightly for 2 – 3 minutes on each side on a pan drizzled with sesame oil. The external layer of the rice will become toasty, golden brown, and a bit crackly.
- Uncooked Japanese short-grain rice – 2 cups
- Water – 2 ½ cups
For making onigiri
- Salt (sea salt or kosher, user half if you choose to use table salt)
- Nori (seaweed) – 4 sheets
- Salted salmon – 1 fillet
- Dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi) – 2 packages
- Soy sauce – 2 ½ tbsp.
- Canned tuna – 1
- Japanese mayonnaise
- Japanese pickled plum (umeboshi) – 3
- Seasoned kombu
- Roasted/toasted black and white sesame seeds (to garnish)
Gather all your ingredients together
Preparing the steamed rice
- Put your rice in a large rice bowl, and then gently wash it in a circular motion and dispose of the water. Repeat this process for around 3 – 4 times
- Allow the rice to soak in water for around 30 minutes. Move the rice into a rice sieve and allow it to drain completely—this should take around 15 minutes
- Now, mix the rice and water in a pot with a heavy bottom, and cover it with a lid. Bring the rice to boil over medium heat.
- Once the water boils, reduce the heat to the lowest setting, and then continue to cook while covered for around 12 – 13 minutes, or until the water is fully absorbed. After the 12 minutes, open the pot to see if there is any water present, close the lid, and then continue cooking for an additional one minute.
- Remove the pot from the stove—while the lid is on, and then allow the rice to steam for an additional 10 minutes. Next, move the rice to a large plate and fluff it with a rice scooper. Allow it to cook for some time—or until you can comfortably hold it with your hands—without burning them. However, you shouldn’t allow the rice to cool down completely.
Preparing the onigiri fillings
- As your rice soaks and drains – 45 minutes, start preparing the onigiri fillings
- For the slated salmon—sprinkle kosher salt on both sides of the salmon fillet, and then bake at 400 degrees F in an oven or toaster oven for 25 minutes
- Next, break the baked salmon into flakes and then set them aside
- For the umeboshi filling—place the Japanese pickled plums (umeboshi) on a sheet of plastic wrap (10” x 10”). Fold in half and then squeeze out the seeds from each plum. Discard the seeds to remain with the umeboshi flesh
- For the okaka filling—put the dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi) in a bowl and then add 2 tbsp of soy sauce and mix them together. The bonito flakes should be moist, and no soy sauce should be left of the bottom of the bowl.
- For the tuna mayo filling—put the drained canned tuna in a bowl and then add 2 tbsp. of Japanese mayonnaise and ½ tbsp. of soy sauce, and then mix them together
- For the seasoned kombu filling—put the seasoned kombu in a bow for easier access later
Preparing the onigiri
- Cut the nori sheets in thirds
- Then you need to wet your hands with water to prevent the rice from sticking on your hands
- Then apply some salt in your hands and then rub to spread around your palms. If you are using table salt, make sure that you use half since it is much salter compared to kosher salt
- Now, scoop the warm rice—around 1 third of a cup into one hand, and then create a small indentation in the middle of the rice. Put your fillings inside—about 1 to 2 tsp, and then use your hands to mold the rice around the indentation to cover the fillings
- Press the rice around the area with the filling to create a triangle shape from the rice—you can use three fingers (thumb, index, and middle fingers) to create a triangle corner. Ensure that your hands are firm to prevent the onigiri from falling apart. Also, make sure that you don’t squeeze your rice very tight.
- Use the nori to cover the onigiri
- Place some of your fillings on top of the rice balls
- If you do not want to touch the rice at all, you can place a piece of plastic wrap in a rice bowl (or any small bowl) and put the rice on top. Sprinkle some kosher salt (remember, salt is used to preserve the rice for a long time here).
- Pull the plastic wrap corners and twist a few times.
- Form into a triangle shape in the same manner as I described above.
A heavy-bottom pot with a tight-fitting lid is recommended as it is thicker at the base, so it absorbs and distributes heat better.
View the basics of making onigiri here in this video:
Japanese Sweet rice balls recipe (ohagi)
Also known as botamochi, ohagi are sweet rice balls made with glutinous rice. Mostly, they are eaten during the higan period of the spring and autumn—a Buddhist holiday celebrated by the Japanese during the two equinoxes.
The name ohagi comes the autumn flower—hagi (bush clover). Traditional, the sweet rice balls made in the spring period are known as botamochi, and they are named after the spring flower, botan.
In this recipe, there are two types of rice—Japanese and glutinous. Glutinous rice is a sticky and sweet rice strain grown in Southern Asia Region. The name glutinous doesn’t mean that the rice contains gluten—but because it’s sticky.
There is a Japanese cake made from glutinous rice—mochi. Japanese rice, on the other hand, is short-grain-polished white rice. In this recipe, you can choose to use a stovetop or rice cooker—you only need to adjust the time if you opt to use a stovetop to prepare your rice.
For the rice balls
- Glutinous rice (mocha gome) – 2 ½ cups
- Japanese rice – ½ cup
- Water – 3 cups
For the toppings
Make a bowl for 4 different toppings each:
- Anko (sweet azuki bean paste) – ¾ lb.
- Crushed walnuts and sugar (ground together) – ½ cup and 2 tbsp. respectively
- Black sesame seed and sugar (ground together) – 3 tbsp. and 1 ½ tbsp. respectively
- Kinako (soybean powder) and sugar (mixed) – 1/3 cup and 2 tbsp. respectively
- Gather all your ingredients together
- Put the two types of rice in a bowl and then wash using cold water
- Drain your line using a colander and then set it aside for 30 minutes
- Place your rice in a rice cooker, and then add 3 cups of water. Allow the rice to soak in water for around 30 minutes, and then start your cooker.
- As the rice cooks, put all your prepped toppings in different bowls
- Once your rice is cooked, allow it to steam for an additional 15 minutes
- Use a wooden pestle or spoon to mash your rice until it’s sticky
- Wet your hands using water, and then mold your rice into oval balls
- Use your different toppings to roll the balls through and cover them completely, then serve
There you go! These are some of the easiest recipes that will assist you in making Japanese rice balls at home.
Therefore you don’t have to complain about spending much on onigiri when you buy them at convenience stores—as you can now make them at home.
As we said earlier, this is much easier and more economical than buying ready-made Japanese rice balls.