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“Onigiri”: The Soul of Japan in a Ball of Rice

Yukimasa Rika [Profile]


Onigiri might be the “soul food” of the Japanese. These days an eclectic variety of fillings are making their way into the rice balls, but in their most basic form, they are made with just three ingredients: rice, salt, and nori seaweed. The first step to making delicious onigiri is learning how to cook delicious rice.

Ingredients (makes 2)

  • 1 cup Japanese rice
  • 1.2 cup soft water
  • About 1/3 tsp coarse salt per onigiri
  • Nori (dried seaweed sheets), as needed


  1. Put the rice in a bowl. Pour water, quickly stir with one hand, and drain. Repeat until the water no longer turns cloudy (about eight times).

Keep rinsing the rice until the water is clearer than shown here. (©

  1. Drain the rice in a colander and let dry for about 30 minutes. This will allow the rice to better soak up water during cooking.

After rinsing, let the rice sit in a colander. (©

  1. Soak the rice in water (preferably soft water) for about 30 minutes. The cooked rice will come out even fluffier if allowed to soak for 1–2 hours.
  2. Put the rice in a pot. Add water (1.2 times the amount of rice), cover with a lid, and place over high heat. When the water comes to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and continue to cook with the lid on for 13 more minutes.
  3. Allow cooked rice to cool somewhat. Place a handful of rice on plastic wrap, sprinkle salt over it, and wrap it up. Gently press the rice into a ball with both hands. Try to finish in about seven squeezes, taking care to apply soft and gentle pressure. While the basic salt onigiri is delicious in and of itself, you can give it more flavor by wrapping it in nori or adding your filling of choice in the center of the rice before shaping.

Onigiri is traditionally shaped with moistened bare hands, but plastic wrap will keep your hands clean.

The trick to making fluffy onigiri is to use soft and gentle pressure.

Cooking Tips

  • The Japanese love onigiri. From picnics and field trips to school sports days, they grow up munching on rice balls as a mainstay of outdoor meals.
  • Onigiri chains are popping up overseas, and a growing variety of foods are coming to be used as filling.
  • Standard fillings include umeboshi (pickled plums), salmon, okaka (dried bonito flakes mixed with soy sauce), mentaiko (spicy Pollock roe), tsukudani (seafood or other food simmered in soy sauce and sweet cooking sake), and miso. But less traditional options, like grilled meat or boiled egg, can make for equally delightful rice balls.
  • At the end of the day, though, nothing beats a simple onigiri flavored with salt and nothing else.
  • One key to cooking delicious rice is to use soft water. If the tap water in your area is hard, look for bottled water with low mineral content and use it to cook your rice after using ordinary water to rinse the grains.
  • If you don’t have the time to cook the rice, microwavable precooked rice packs can be used instead. A variety of rice packs of impressive quality, made with different kinds of rice, are available these days.

Rice packs, with their long shelf life, can be kept handy in the pantry. (©

  • Tasting Japanese packet rice will give you an idea of how Japanese rice, which is sweet and sticky, should turn out when you cook it yourself.
  • The secret to making tasty onigiri is to shape them in your hands using very gentle pressure.
  • You are bound to pack the rice too hard if you try to mold it into a perfect triangle like the onigiri sold in stores. A plump, somewhat odd-shaped onigiri is the best kind.
  • The nori has a front and back; the smoother, glossy side is the front. Make sure the front side faces outward when wrapping.

(Originally written in Japanese with editorial assistance by Usami Rika and published on February 5, 2018. Photos by Natori Kazuhisa, except where otherwise noted.)

  • [2018.04.11]

Culinary expert; chief executive officer, REKIDS. Born in 1966 in Fukuoka Prefecture. Graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. After returning to Japan, found work as a commercial producer with Japanese advertising giant Dentsu and began writing cookbooks on the side. At age 42, left Dentsu to start up her own online education business. Has appeared on the NHK World cooking show Dining with the Chef since 2011. Yukimasa has published more than 50 cookbooks, which have sold upwards of 800,000 copies and have been translated into Chinese and Korean. Author of Reshipi no iranai washoku no hon (Japanese Cooking Without Recipes), Konya wa ienomi (Drinks at Home Tonight), and many other works.

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