When I lived in Japan rice balls, or Onigiri Japanese Rice Balls, were the staple during swim meets. In-between races the team would sit down in the cafeteria in our puffy jackets, sweats, and sandals and stuff our faces with them.
I don’t think the Japanese swimmers understood our excitement about them. Over there rice balls are considered comfort food, as common as…peanut butter and jelly? It’s nothing special. In fact, I think all the food I ate frequently over there was probably comfort food. But to me, Onigiri Japanese Rice Balls was an exciting treat that broke up the boredom and cold of swim meets.
Years later, after moving back to the states, some of my high schools friends introduced me to Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese dramas. The first one I ever watched was the Japanese drama Hana Yori Dango (Boys Over Flowers) and there was a funny part that reminded me of my first encounter with Onigiri Japanese Rice Balls.
Makino Tsukushi (the main character), who is poor and in a scholarship program at a really elite school, is eating her onigiri, which is covered in furikake. One of her new friends looks at it and say’s “Ah! Oh no, it’s moldy!” Makino takes that as confirmation that her new friend really is rich and out of touch with normal people.
But it’s funny because Onigiri Japanese Rice Balls was one of the first Japanese foods I was introduced to and I didn’t know what all that furry stuff was. It was neon bright green and kind of scary looking to my young mind. But I soon got over it and was stuffing my face.
I make these when I have leftover salmon or some of my grandma’s canned tuna. You can get really creative with what you put in the rice, the filling, and the toppings.
Common Japanese Fillings for Onigiri Japanese Rice Balls
- Pickled plums (umeboshi): try the brands Ozuke or Eden. Pickled plums should not have any corn syrup or sugar. Simply plums, sea salt, and beefsteak leaves (shiso). I prefer them served on the side though rather than inside the rice balls. They are a lot like olives-very, very, very salty. I take nibbles of them in-between bites.
- Sweet red bean paste (anko): there are different types of sweet red bean paste but the two most common are koshian and tsubuan. I prefer koshian because it’s prepared by passing it through a sieve to remove the bean skins. It’s also the one I remember the most from Japan, having eaten it many times stuffed in pounded rice or in rice balls.
- Cod roe (tarako): I’ve personally never tried this before but it’s a popular filling.
- Canned tuna: this is the filling option I had most of the time in Japan. It was usually mixed with mayonnaise and maybe a little wasabi sauce.
- Salt-cured salmon: this is another one I haven’t personally tried.
Common Japanese Toppings for Onigiri Japanese Rice Balls
- red shiso powder (yukari)
- dried salmon flakes (sakebushi)
- dried seaweed (nori)
- rice seasoning (furikake)-my personal favorite
Don’t feel constricted though. Put whatever you want in the middle. Hate fish or don’t eat meat? Do a seaweed salad or coleslaw. I kind of want to make one where I season the rice with lime and pack the middle with lime and cumin roasted chickpeas. I would top it with some kind of seed maybe? I think that would be tasty.
I hope you enjoyed this post! Next week I’ll be back with more Japanese comfort food (Japanese Beef Curry).
Onigiri Japanese Rice Balls
- 1 cup short grained rice sushi rice
- 1.5 cups water
- pinch of sea salt
- sprinkle of rice vinegar
Filling Option 1: Spicy Kimchi Tuna
- Drizzle of sesame seed oil
- 3 green onions diced
- 1/2 to 1 cup diced kimchi + some juice
- 1 cup canned tuna drained
- 1 tablespoon guchujang Korean chili paste
Filling Option 2: Salmon Furikake
- 1 cup salmon (baked grilled, or smoked), shredded
- 1/2 to 1 tablespoon mayonnaise
- pinch of salt and pepper
- sprinkling of Nori Furikake to taste, seaweed rice seasoning
- red shiso powder yukari
- dried salmon flakes sakebushi
- dried seaweed nori
- rice seasoning furikake
Wash the rice until the water runs clear. This takes longer than you think. Soak the rice for 30 minutes and then drain. Transfer to a rice cooker along with 1.5 cups water and cook.
While the rice is soaking and cooking, prepare your filling of choice.
For the Spicy Kimchi Tuna, heat a drizzle of sesame seed oil on medium heat. Once it’s warm, add the green onions, kimchi and a little bit of kimchi juice. Sauté for 3 minutes. Add the tuna and guchujang and mix until fully incorporated. Put into a bowl and set aside.
For the Salmon Furikake, mix all the ingredients together in a bowl and set aside.
Once the rice is done cooking, add a little bit of rice vinegar and sea salt and mix. Let the rice cool enough to be able to handle.
Wet your hands (I like to keep a bowl of water near by so I can constantly wet my hands) and scoop 1/4th cup rice into the palm of your hand. Make an indentation and place your filling of choice in the middle. Shape the rice around the filling into a triangle, ball, or cylinder shape.
Place a sheet of seaweed on the bottom. Usually you’re supposed to use unflavored seaweed sheets that you cut into the desired sizes but I like to use seasoned seaweed. (1) Because I like the extra kick of flavor and (2) because you can buy seasoned seaweed in pre-cut packets.
Sprinkle the rice ball with your choice of rice seasoning (furikake). My personal favorites are nori komi furikake and salmon furikake. Serve with roasted seaweed sheets and pickled plums (umeboshi).
The cooking time for the rice will depend on your rice cooker.
Other filling options include de-seeded pickled plums (umeboshi), sweet red bean paste, cod roe (tarako), or salt-cured salmon.
I usually make these when I have leftover salmon or tuna but you can fill them with whatever you want: chicken salad, veggies, fruits, etc. You can get very creative with them.