Onigiri vs sushi maki | What’s the difference? It’s about shape and flavor

                by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  September 2, 2021

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Japan is known across the world for its delicious cuisine. Two of the most popular food items you’ll find on menus all across the country are onigiri and sushi maki.

No matter where you go in Japan, whether it’s sitting down at a restaurant or popping into a convenience store (which they call Konbinis), you’re likely to find both onigiri and sushi maki.

What’s the difference between onigiri vs sushi maki? To start with, these dishes aren’t the same at all.

Onigiri vs sushi maki | What's the difference? It's about shape and flavor

In a nutshell, onigiri is made from plain rice while sushi maki is made from rice and vinegar with some salt and sugar as well. While it sounds similar, they have different functions. Onigiri is a way of making rice portable to eat anywhere, while sushi is made to preserve fish.

Is onigiri a type of sushi?

Many people who are new to Japanese cuisine get the dishes mixed up with one another. That’s completely normal, as they are somewhat similar.

However, once you become more custom to the many wonderful foods this culture has to offer it will be easier to tell the difference. Onigiri is not a type of sushi.

The key difference between the two is how the rice is prepared. As mentioned above, onigiri uses plain rice. It is generally steamed and then molded into the cylinder or triangular shape to form the onigiri dish.

Once the onigiri shape has been formed, it is often wrapped in nori (a dried seaweed).

Onigiri fillings

Onigiri usually has a filling in it as well. There are many different fillings that can be added to this popular treat. Some of the most popular flavors include:

What is sushi maki?

While onigiri is mainly popular in Japan, sushi is loved all over the world. Sushi is made up of vinegar seasoned rice along with other ingredients (vegetables, raw fish, and seafood).

There are many types of sushi and sushi maki is one of the more popular varieties. Sushi maki is when the sushi has been rolled up in a cylinder shape and includes nori with the fillings.

After maki has been rolled into shape, it is often cut up into bite-sized pieces. The fillings of choice will be wrapped in the nori, which is then covered in the vinegar rice.

People often use sesame seeds and fish roe to coat the rice for extra flavor. Sushi maki is delicious, but its presentation is part of its appeal.

When people order sushi maki, they usually intend to sit down and enjoy it. It’s not typically food that people would consider portable or bring with them when they’re on the go.

However, given its popularity over the year, more places are finding ways to include sushi maki in their to-go options.

Also read: Best Sushi Knife | 10 best cleavers for Sashimi, meat & fish

Why do people get onigiri and sushi maki mixed up?

It’s very easy to get onigiri mixed up with any type of sushi, but it’s more common to get it confused with sushi maki because they essentially use a lot of the same ingredients.

Nori makes an appearance in both of these foods, which gives them a similar flavor. However, many people think that onigiri has a lighter flavor because it has less acid.

A lot of people are under the impression that sushi maki is strictly seafood and fish-based. This isn’t true at all. Actually, beef is a very popular ingredient used in sushi.

Often people thought the presence of meat would mean the dish is an onigiri, but sushi can be made with a variety of fillings as well.

If your tastebuds don’t pick up on the vinegar used to season the rice for sushi maki, you should be able to tell the difference by their appearance.

Sushi maki is formed in a cylinder roll before it’s sliced up, so when you receive an order they will be in small round pieces. Onigiri on the other hand is often larger and more triangular-shaped, perfect for eating on the go.

Final thoughts: onigiri vs sushi maki

Often when people are new to eating Japanese food, it can be tricky not to mix up some of their more popular dishes.

If you plan to take a trip to Japan in the future, you’ll want to know what you’re ordering before you go. While onigiri and sushi maki are quite similar, it would be disappointing if you ordered one while expecting the other.

The best way to tell the difference between the two is their shape because onigiri will be in a cylinder shape that’s easy to eat no matter where you are.

Onigiri will be made with plain rice, where sushi maki is noticeably different in flavor because the rice has been seasoned with vinegar, salt, and sugar.

Next check out this Yaki onigiri recipe, the perfect Japanese grilled rice ball snack for drinks

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.