My Lunch Can Beat Up Your Lunch!

Bento Recipes: Onigiri/Rice balls


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Onigiri is rice shaped with your hands. It can be really simple, a ball of rice. The version I've seen most often is an equilateral triangle with a strip of nori on one flat end. They can have fillings in the center, or have other stuff mixed in with the rice.

How you make onigiri: cook some sticky rice. Let it cool to the point that it won't burn your hands, but it's still warm. Wet your hands, then grab some rice and form it into a shape with your hands. Traditional shapes include triangles and flattened spheres, but anything you like is fair. If you're making larger onigiri or adding fillings, you can make the process easier by covering one hand with plastic wrap, dishing the rice and filling onto that, then wrapping the plastic around the rice and shaping the onigiri inside the plastic wrap. You can also buy rice presses that will shape it for you. If you like nori, then wrap the rice ball with a strip or encase it, or make pretty patterns on the surface with bits of nori.

Some people get fancy and make little nori faces or designs on their onigiri. I usually don't bother with such frivolity, but I have been known to make rice ball eyeballs by sticking nori pupils on top. (I imagine this would be a hit for kids' lunches right around Halloween.)

Nori can get chewy if it's left on the rice ball for any length of time. Some people, me included, like it that way. If you don't, you can store the nori separately from the rice and assemble it at lunchtime.

Fillings - You can either make a hole in the center and stuff filling in, then cover it again before you squeeze the onigiri into its final shape, or mix something in with the rice so it'll be all throughout the onigiri. If you put in a center filling, squeeze the rice ball well around it and possibly wrap the whole thing in nori, or it might fall apart when you eat it.

Fillings/mixes I've used:

  • Smoked salmon - as a center filling.
  • Furikake - mix it into the rice or sprinkle it on after the ball is formed.
  • Umeboshi - either in the center or torn up and mixed into the rice. I prefer the latter.
  • Leftover filling meat from steamed buns - either as a filling or mixed in.
  • Tuna & mayonnaise. Drain some canned tuna well, mix mayo liberally in, and add other spices like wasabi if you like.
  • Anko - sweet red bean paste for a more desserty onigiri. (Doesn't go well with nori!)
  • Naturally Fresh ginger salad dressing. Delicious when mixed in with rice!

Pre-sauced!Yaki Onigiri - You can grill onigiri to give it a crispy, nonsticky crust. It sounds weird, but it's actually pretty appealing. First, make your onigiri. It should have flat sides, as opposed to being a round ball, for ease of grilling. Lightly grease a frying pan, heat it to medium, then set the onigiri down on it and let it grill for a few minutes, until the rice on the bottom is very lightly browned. Turn it over and brown the other side in the same way. If your onigiri have more sides than this - wide flat edges on a triangular onigiri, for example - you can grill those. (I don't usually bother.) Now turn the heat down to low, brush the top with soy sauce, and turn it over to fry the sauce-y side. Brush the other side with soy sauce and, after a few minutes, turn the onigiri over to grill the second soy side for another few minutes. Again, if you want to grill the edges, go ahead. What you will end up with is an onigiri with a flat, crunchy, soy-infused crust that won't fall apart or stick to your fingers. Nori, seen in the photo, is optional.

You can make yaki onigiri with fried rice too. It's best to use fried rice in which the non-rice elements are cut into very little bits, otherwise they will compromise the onigiri's structural integrity and may cause it to fall apart in the pan. Aside from that, the process is just the same as making regular yaki onigiri, except you need to heat the rice up so it'll stick together, and you skip the soy sauce, as fried rice is already seasoned.