Updated: Sep 17, 2020
One of our most popular menu items, onigiri, or rice balls, are perhaps, the quintessential Japanese snack food. Eaten throughout Japan by people of all ages, onigiri are both simple and delicious. They are also incredibly versatile, able to be customized to fit almost any taste or flavor palette with only a few simple adjustments. They are also relatively easy to make, requiring no necessary special equipment. To make onigiri, all you really need is cooked, short grain white rice, a little bit of salt, and water.
First, make sure that the rice has had some time to cool after cooking. This does two things-- the cooled rice has a slightly tougher texture, so it will not get mushy too quickly when you stir the salt in, and also will make it comfortable to handle when rolling onigiri with your hands.
Transfer the rice to a large bowl and add the salt. You can either salt by taste, wherein the rice should be noticeably but not overpoweringly salty, or by weight. To salt by weight, add 1 teaspoon of salt per pound of cooked rice.
At this point, you will want to make sure you have a bowl of water, or a lightly running faucet nearby. Keeping your hands and any utensils you use to handle the rice wet will prevent rice from sticking to you or whatever you’re using to mix it.
Stir the salt in using a rice paddle, or if you don’t have a rice paddle, a rubber spatula will also work. To stir you will want to use a folding motion, first cutting down the center of the rice, and then flipping some of it over. Rotate the bowl 90 degrees, and repeat the motion until the salt is thoroughly mixed in. You want to avoid pressing the rice as you stir, as this will agitate the gluten in the grains and make the rice kind of chewy.
Once the salt is evenly mixed throughout the rice, you can start rolling out the onigiri. If you happen to have an onigiri mold, this part is super simple. Make sure the mold is wet, and then scoop rice into the mold until it is about even with the top edge. Then, using the lid of the mold, gently press it closed to compress the rice. You want to press it hard enough that the rice will stick to itself, but not so hard that it becomes tough to bite. Then remove the lid, and turn the mold upside down so that the rice is facing down. Use the depressed areas on the top facing part of the mold to dislodge the finished onigiri.
If you don’t have an onigiri mold, that is perfectly fine. They are easy to make using only your hands, although with this method, they will not come out in the typical triangle shape. Instead, they will look round and slightly oblong-- almost like a rice grain, but much bigger.
To roll onigiri using your hands, first make sure that your hands are thoroughly wet. They should be wet enough to slightly drip off your fingers. If your hands are not wet enough, the rice will just stick to you, and you won’t be able to put down your onigiri. Scoop up a substantial handful of rice with your wet hand. A good amount is enough to cover your palm and first knuckle of your cupped hand.
Once you have the rice in your hand, gently curl your fingers towards your palm like you’re making a fist to roll the rice into the beginning of the ball shape. Cup your other hand overtop to prevent the rice from spilling out, much like you would if you were holding a bug in your hand that you didn’t want to crush.
Now, gently, but firmly squeeze the rice with both hands until you start to feel the rice squish into itself. Then let go, turn the ball over, and squeeze again to even out the shape. Set the finished onigiri aside on a plate, and rinse your hands thoroughly with water before starting on the next one. Make sure to rinse off any residual rice gluten, as failing to do so will cause the rice to stick to you and make it impossible to form the onigiri into an even shape.
Once the onigiri are all formed, you can wrap them in squares of nori seaweed, sprinkle sesame seeds on top, or just eat them plain. For more customization, you can try adding furikake to the rice instead of salt during the mixing phase, or spoon a small amount of tuna in the middle during the molding step to add a filling. Once you’ve mastered the basics of onigiri making, you can add literally anything you want to personalize them to your taste. That’s the beauty of onigiri-- simple and delicious, but with endless possibilities.