Onigiri vs musubi | Different names for Japanese rice balls

                by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  September 7, 2021

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Ever had trouble finding Japanese recipes that were easy to make?

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There are hundreds of delicious Asian dishes to try, but it can also be hard to separate them at first and to figure out which one is which, and whether two dishes are the same.

Take onigiri and musubi, for example! Are they the same?

Onigiri vs musubi | Different names for the same Japanese rice balls

Perhaps you ordered onigiri in a restaurant once, then decided to try musubi in a different restaurant, and thought they looked and tasted the same?

You are right to be confused, as depending on which type of musubi you are referring to – the two are actually the same and the terms are interchangeable.

Musubi, or omusubi which is the more common way to write it, is just another name for the Japanese dish, which means you will get the same no matter what you order.

There is an exception, though, which we will cover in a moment.

Are you still confused? Onigiri goes by many names. It is known as onigiri, musubi, omusubi, nigirimeshi and more, and a plain onigiri without any filling is called shio-musubi.

How the dish is called depends on where in the world you are, what restaurant you eat at and the customs of whoever wrote the menu.

What is onigiri?

Now that we have established that the two are possibly the same (unless, of course, you are looking for information about spam musubi, but we will get to that) – what is it?

Onigiri, or omusubi, is a Japanese rice ball made with white rice.

The rice ball is usually shaped like a triangle or a cylinder, and the base is wrapped with seaweed (nori), and they can be filled with anything from salted salmon to pickled ume.

You can find these in restaurants worldwide, but also in Asian convenience stores as a quick bite. You can even buy onigiri online.

There are various different variations of onigiri/musubi available, both made with different types of rice and different fillings, but also with slightly differentiating looks.

If you are a fan – why not make it your mission to try the dish in different restaurants to see how different (or similar) they are? You could be in for an exciting flavor experience.

You can also try this Yaki onigiri recipe, the perfect Japanese grilled rice ball snack for drinks

Where to eat onigiri/musubi

Unless you are planning a trip to Japan, your best bet is to look around for Japanese or Asian restaurants in your area.

These are very typical dishes that are often found at authentic Japanese kitchens, and you shouldn’t have too hard of a time finding them.

It is always exciting to see which fillings are offered as a restaurant, as the options are almost endless, and you might want to make sure you ask what that specific restaurant recommends if you want the best of the best.

How about spam musubi?

Alright, so let’s dig even deeper into this. Onigiri and musubi are the same, but spam musubi is slightly different.

Here we have a small block of rice with spam meat on top, and nori (seaweed) is used to tie the two together.

There is also spam musubi with a second layer of rice on top, and this dish is a popular snack food you can find in convenience stores.

When you are unfamiliar with Asian culture and cuisine, all these names can be extremely confusing!

This snack food would be considered different than onigiri, so you might want to double-check which type of musubi you are comparing onigiri with.

Interestingly, spam musubi isn’t Japanese, but Hawaiian with Japanese influences (just like teriyaki).  So, musubi onigiri is Japanese, while spam musubi is actually Hawaiian.

In this dish, the spam slices are usually fried or grilled, and you may come across spam musubi that has been fried in teriyaki sauce! Sounds delicious? It is!

While there are different things the name “musubi” can refer to, neither is considered a type of sushi, so don’t confuse them.

Spam musubi is not as commonly found in restaurants as omusubi, as it is considered more of a quick snack than a meal, but you might be in luck and find it somewhere.

Where to eat spam musubi?

If you are more interested in spam musubi, then you might have to look a little further than your typical Japanese restaurants due to their Hawaiian origins.

However, it is a dish that is very easy to make yourself! If you do make it, try to eat it the same day as you want to avoid storing it in the fridge. Rice doesn’t do well in the fridge.

Conclusion

The confusion is real! To sum things up: onigiri and musubi are the same, and it is often referred to as musubi onigiri, omusubi, nigirimeshi, or simply as rice balls.

The term “musubi” can also refer to “spam musubi,” which is not the same as onigiri, and instead, it is a Hawaiian dish with strong Japanese influences.

Also wondering what’s the difference between onigiri vs sushi maki?

Ever had trouble finding Japanese recipes that were easy to make?

We now have "cooking Japanese with ease", our full recipe book and video course with step-by-step tutorials on your favorite recipes.

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.