Japanese Rice Balls: Have Them Your Way


David Nakamura

One of the first things I do when I come to Japan, usually even before leaving the airport, is find a convenience store and make a beeline for the onigiri.

To the uninitiated, onigiri are rice balls, or more commonly rice triangles, stuffed with various fillings—including salmon, cod roe, tuna and mayonnaise, and Japanese sour plums called umeboshi—then wrapped in seaweed (nori). Onigiri, which translates to "taking hold with your hands", cost between $1.00 and $1.50 per patty and are usually eaten for breakfast, as a snack, or as part of a bento box lunch.

To aficionados, the magic of onigiri can be mystifying. They are simple, mass-produced, and ubiquitous to the point of bordering on mundane in a land full of more deliberately prepared delicacies. Onigiri are everywhere: lined up row after row on convenience store shelves in the chilled, perishable food section with color-coded packaging so that even those people, such as me, who cannot read Japanese kanji can tell them apart.

Having so many choices explains, I think, part of onigiri's appeal. Every day of the week, you can try a different one. Another selling point is that onigiri provide a quick, easy snack that remains fresh—unlike, say, a 7-Eleven ham-and-cheese sandwich. Unpacking convenience store onigiri requires a careful three-step process in which you slide out the seaweed, which is separated by plastic from the rice so it stays crisp; remove the rice patty; then wrap the seaweed around the rice. Fortunately, there are directions on the plastic that make it easier.

The first time I ate onigiri was when I was teaching English at a Hiroshima high school and a Japanese teacher sitting next to me unwrapped one before classes began at 9:00 a.m. I was immediately put off that he was eating salmon and rice for breakfast, and I demurred when he offered me one. After a couple of weeks, however, I secretly bought one and tried it. My colleague was right—I loved it.

The rice patties, whether triangular or circular like a hockey-puck, are perfectly formed. Though the mass-produced store brands are made by machines, most Japanese can shape onigiri efficiently by hand. Most Americans, not so much.

During my first year here, my friend Miho invited me to help make onigiri at her home in Hiroshima. Her mother steamed a batch of rice, which we scooped up, dipped in water (to make it less sticky), and set about shaping into triangles.

Not surprisingly, Miho, steeped in years of practice, created perfect equilateral after equilateral. I, by comparison, produced what looked like lumpy American footballs. That gave the Sato family a good chuckle. What's the difference, I shrugged, employing an argument not used since grade school, since it'll all end up in the same place anyway?

But, especially in image-conscious Japan, appearance matters. And I can't deny that I wasn't immune from judging an onigiri by its cover. Miho and her mother sent me home with a collection wrapped individually and placed in a plastic container. The following day, heading off to work, my hand gravitated to the better-looking onigiri, which I'm pretty sure had not been made by me.