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Introduction to onigiri
Onigiri (also called omusubi) is a ball or triangle of hot or cold rice, often with a filling, frequently wrapped in nori making it easier to eat. It is a popular snack food, and is also common as part of a packed lunch. Depending on your location, some convenience store chains have shelves with a large selection of fresh onigiri for sale.
The most common form of onigiri has a filling in the center. This is often something sour or salty, as it helps preserve the rice for longer periods of time. Common fillings include umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum); katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes, often called "okaka" in this case) moistened in soy sauce; cooked, salted salmon ("sake"); cod roe ("tarako"); kombu; and canned tuna ("sea-chicken") with mayonnaise. Less common is onigiri with the filling mixed in with the rice, making it spread throughout the rice.
A related dish is Yaki-onigiri, which is a plain onigiri without fillings that has been brushed with soy sauce or barbecue sauce and grilled. This is a common side dish in pubs. A creative variation is a yaki-onigiri in a bowl of dashi garnished with chopped leek and katsuobushi.
Fillings for onigiri are only limited to your imagination. One point to remember is to choose fillings that are not overly hard/crunchy. If they are reasonably hard they become quite difficult to eat. Western fillings that can be quite delicious include such things as corned meats, avocado, even olives or semidried tomatoes. A recommendation is to use fillings with a lot of flavour as it can be very bland and to cut them to small pieces.
- Difficulty: Incredibly easy. If you can boil rice and handle a little heat in the fingers, you can make onigiri.
- Time: About 45 minutes. Most of this time is taken in prep work (i.e., cooking and cooling of rice)
- Japanese-style Short Grained Rice
- Filling (Ex:)
- Katsuobushi (Bonito Flakes)
- First, you need to use Japanese-style short grain rice; if the rice isn't sticky, there is obviously little chance of the onigiri staying together. Cook it in the usual way (using the instructions that are on the packet or included with the rice cooker). A rice cooker is recommended since it will be far more 'hands off' and will also free up more time to prepare the fillings. Estimate that one deciliter (1/2 cup) of uncooked rice will become about two larger onigiri or three smaller ones. While the rice is cooking, prepare the fillings. As you can see in the list above, there is wide latitude on what you can use as a filling. A few easy examples:
- Umeboshi: estimate one-two plums per onigiri. Squeeze out the stone, and you're done!
- Bonito Flakes: take a deciliter or so of the flakes, and pour a little soy sauce over it - it is very easy to pour too much, so be careful. Mix the flakes and the soy sauce until the flakes are moistened.
- Tuna: Take a can of tuna. Mix with a little mayonnaise - again, be sure you don't make it too wet. Add seasoning to taste; this can be chopped leeks, soy sauce, or chilies; sour or salty flavours work well.
- When the rice is done and has allowed to sit for a while, but not too long, it needs to be hot - it is time to make the rice balls. It is a good idea to have a moderately large, clear workspace that is easy to clean afterwards. The rice is sticky, and you will end up getting it everywhere in the area. You need a bowl with salt water to rinse your fingers - the rice is sticky; also, the salty water enhances the flavour of the onigiri. Lastly, you will probably want to have some sheets of nori, though if you can't find it or don't like it, you can certainly do without. There are two options listed that can be used to make these items:
- Option 1 is to wet your hands in the salt water. Take two large spoonfuls of rice into one hand (carefully; the rice is hot), and gently squeeze and flatten it with the other. Make an indentation in the middle, and put some of the filling into the center. Be a little careful to get the filling only in the center and not all over the ball; that can make the rice less sticky, and stickiness is good.
- "Fold" the rice over the filling so it becomes covered. Squeeze gently, and mold it into a triangular shape by folding both your hands along the palms while keeping the fingers straight. Squeeze like that, rotating the ball a few times, and you will soon have a very neat triangle - this really is much harder to explain than to do. Once the ball is done, put it down on a clean surface to cool down. Rinse your hands and repeat.
- Option 2 is to use a bowl and some plastic film (saran wrap/cling wrap). Place about 2/3rds of the mixture into the centre of the cling wrap that has been draped into the bowl loosely. Then add approximately 2 teaspoons of filling (this is working off of about 3-4 portions per cup of rice. Then place the last 1/3 of the rice to the top. Then, mould the onigiri within the cling wrap. This drastically reduces mess and also is slightly more 'kid friendly'.
- Once the balls are reasonably cool, you need to protect them from drying out. The easiest way is to wrap them in cling wrap, or put them into an airtight plastic food container. When it is time to eat, take one rice ball, wrap it in a piece of nori, and eat away. If you don't mind soggy nori, you can wrap the balls in nori beforehand.
Tips, Notes, and Variations
Do not ever use refrigerated, cold rice and do not refrigerate after assembling onigiri. Store in lunch cooler or thermos, the rice gets hard and doesn’t taste well.
You can however, freeze onigiri and then microwave them to defrost and then pack for a tasty lunch!