Onigiri On Parade: A guide to onigiri (omusubi) rice ball shapes, types and fun

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[Update:] Also check out the Onigiri (omusubi) FAQ!

Onigiri (or omusubi, the other name for the same thing), the cute little rice ball, has really become popular outside of Japan in the last few years, in large part it seems due to its iconic status in anime and manga. While the onigiri is not limited in Japanese food culture to just bento use, it’s an indispensable part of the bento maker’s repertoire.

Previously on Just Hungry, I’ve explained how to make onigiri twice: the traditional, hot salty palms way, and an easier method using plastic wrap and a cup. And you can always use a plastic onigiri mold if neither method appeals. However, I have never really gone into depth about the different shapes and kinds of onigiri. So, here it is - a parade of different kinds of onigiri: shapes, coverings, fillings, and more.

But first to dispell some onigiri myths…

  • Onigiri do not have to be triangular in shape.
  • Onigiri do not have to be covered with nori seaweed.
  • Onigiri do not have to have a filling.
  • If the rice is sushi rice (flavored with sushi vinegar), it is no longer onigiri, it’s sushi.

The one rule of onigiri is…

Onigiri must be made with sticky, short- or medium-grain rice, ideally steam-cooked japonica type rice. If you can’t get a hold of Japanese rice (also commonly sold as ‘susi rice’), Italian medium-grain rices uses for risotto like vialone (which is the most like Japanese urichi-mai), arborio and so on can be used. Long grain type rice just will not stick together sufficiently. See the Looking at Rice article for an in-depth explanation of different types of rice, and what can and cannot be used successfully for onigiri.

(Note that I’ve used white rice for illustration purposes for this article, but properly cooked brown rice can be used in most cases too.)

The keys to great tasting onigiri are

  • Good rice, properly washed and cooked. There is a big difference between mediocre rice and good rice
  • Sufficient salt to flavor the onigiri - either on the outside if making the usual type of onigiri, or with a salty filling inside, or salty enough sprinkles.

Traditional onigiri shapes

As stated above, an onigiri does not have to be triangular. As long as it holds together, it can be any shape possible.

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Above are the the traditional hand-formed onigiri shapes: triangle, flattened round, and cylinder or tawara. Tawara is the shape of the traditional straw bale that was for storing and transporting rice.

Type 1: The plain, unadorned, unfilled onigiri

onigiri1_plain.jpgThis is a plain ball of rice, lightly salted on the outside. There is no filling, nor any cover. If one has excellent quality rice, such as top class shinmai (new rice from the current harvest) and wants to savor the pure flavor of the rice, this is the one to have.

A plain onigiri like this is the essence of Japanese food to me: rice, and salt. Rice was so important that the wealth of lords used to be measured in how much rice their lands produced, and salt is used extensively in Shinto rituals even now, to purify and sanctify. The onigiri as religious icon? Why not?

Type 2: The filled, nori covered onigiri

onigiri3_nori.jpg

This is the most popular kind of onigiri, with a small amount of salty filling in the inside covered with plain rice, which is covered partly or fully with nori. Depending on if you like your nori crispy or a bit soft and moist, you either carry the nori separately and wrap it around the rice when eating, or put it on the rice when making (and when the rice is still warm). Since it’s like thin paper, it can be cut easily with scissors, and is used quite a lot for decorative ‘cute’ bento.

Type 3: The sprinkled onigiri

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This is a filled or unfilled onigiri that is sprinkled on the outside with something. Sesame seeds, gomashio (sesame seeds mixed with salt), or furikake (mixed savory sprinkles - there are many various flavors) are commonly used. The one on the left is sprinkled with gomashio, and the one on the right with two colors of yukari (dried shiso leaf powder).

Type 4: The mixed-rice onigiri

onigiri4_mixed.jpg

For this type of onigiri, the rice is first mixed with something, then formed into a ball. The example above on the left is mixed with green peas, and the one on the right is mixed with homemade furikake made from radish leaves and bonito flakes (recipe ). Since the rice is flavored, this type usually doesn’t have a filling, and is often not covered to show the rice off (or just has a minimal nori strip). Anything can be mixed into the rice like this as long as it’s not too moist or oily, which will make the rice grains fall apart.

Type 5: The visible-inside onigiri

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This type of onigiri shows off the inside and is only wrapped around the sides, rather than all around the ball. This one is rather more difficult to make than other types.

Type 6: Onigiri with alternate wrappings

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Nori is the most common onigiri wrapping, but there are other wrappings. Here is one wrapped in salted green shiso leaves.

Other wrappings include nozawana zuke (pickled green leaves) and hakusai zuke (pickled nappa cabbage), thin dried kombu seaweed called tororo, and so on. I’ve even seen salted lettuce leaves and kimchee used as wrappers. Onigiri wrapped with alternate wrappers can be filled or unfilled, depending on how salty the wrapping is.

Type 7: Yaki Onigiri - grilled onigiri

onigiri8_yaki.jpg

Onigiri that is grilled on a wire grill until crispy, then brushed with soy sauce or miso. Yaki onigiri are best served hot, though they can be chewy yet tasty bento additions. Yaki onigiri usually do not have fillings, though some people like to put a little umeboshi or okaka inside (see the Filling section below).

What goes inside the onigiri

onigiri11_inside.jpg In response to my previous onigiri posts on Just Hungry, the question asked the most is about fillings. I have already written about this before, but it bears repeating here. Basically, anything that fits with rice and is not too greasy or watery can be used as filling. So, if the traditional fillings don’t appeal to you, try things that you like and see how they taste!

If you are a traditionalist as I tend to be, here are the most popular fillings.

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From the top, clockwise:

  • Shiozake or shiojake, salted salmon which is grilled and flaked. It’s easy to make your own.
  • Umeboshi (salty pickled plum). A little of this goes a long way. It also has some antibacterial qualities, so it’s the ideal filling for onigiri that might be travelling at room temperature for some time. The photo shows regular soft umeboshi Not shown here is the crunchy and smooth skinned kariume.
  • Tarako, salty cod roe that is cooked and cut into small chunks. (While tarako is closely related to mentaiko, spicy cod roe, you don’t see mentaiko used as an onigiri filling that often for some reason, but it’s equally good as an onigiri filling.)
  • Okaka is bonito flakes or katsuobushi (the kind used for making dashi stock) mixed until moistened with soy sauce. (Confusingly it’s also just called katsuobushi or katsubushi.) You must take care not to mix in too much soy sauce, or it will seep through the rice and cause the onigiri to crumble.
  • Umekaka, bonito flakes mixed with umeboshi.
  • Kombu no tsukudani or shio kombu - kombu seaweed that’s been cooked in a soy sauce based sauce until tender and salty. Other types of tsukudani can be used too. How to make your own kombu no tsukudani.

Rather less traditional but widely popular:

  • Tempura - shrimp tempura (shrimp fried in a light batter) used either as a filling or on the outside. This type of onigiri is called tenmusu. It’s a regional speciality of the city of Nagoya.
  • Canned flaked tuna mixed with mayonnaise - the tuna is almost always oil-packed. This filling doesn’t keep that well - eat within a few hours.
  • A piece of chicken karaage (fried chicken).
  • Various kinds of chopped up pickles

Fun with onigiri

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If you use molds you can make other shapes too, such as these above. Why not a bunny or cat onigiri? Personally I don’t use molds much since I can make them by hand a lot faster, but they can be fun if you have the time, or are making them for a party or something like that. (I actually used egg molds to make the ones in the photo.) Faces can be made with cut nori or anything you can imagine. It should all be edible though!

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You can also play around with the size of the onigiri. Here’s a ‘jumbo onigiri’ side by side with a regular sized onigiri. The Jumbo has three kinds of fillings inside,has about 2 1/2 cups of rice, and comes in at around 600 calories. It’s a two-fisted onigiri!

Eater beware, or the calories in onigiri

A small to average sized onigiri has around 1/3 to 1/2 cup of rice, which is 80-110 calories. Depending on how big you make them they could be even more. If you are doing portion control, it’s best to pre-measure the amount of rice as in this method.

Freezing and keeping onigiri

Onigiri can be frozen, well wrapped and filled (except for tempura and chicken karaage type fried fillings, which can get soggy or tough if you microwave them later). I would not make onigiri with frozen rice however - it’s best to form the onigiri an then freeze it. You can then de-frost them, still wrapped, at room temperature, in the fridge or gently defrosted in the microwave. See also: Keeping onigiri fresh and more.

Combined with the previous onigiri articles linked to here, I hope that this answers most, if not all, of the onigiri questions you may have. (Except for the famous Hawaiian Spam Musubi. I still haven’t tried it. Anyone want to invite me to Hawaii? ^_^) (Since this article was originally posted, I’ve been to Hawaii, and tried spam musubi several times. I found them edible but do not love them. Sorry, spam musubi fans!)

[Edit:] This post is Bento Of the Week on Yum Sugar. Thanks to Team Sugar!

Before asking a general question about onigiri, please check out the Onigiri FAQ page. Chances are your answer is already there!

For more bento recipes, ideas and tips, subscribe to Just Bento via your newsreader or by email (more about subscriptions).

And visit our sister site, Just Hungry for great Japanese home recipes and more.

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Re: frozen onigiri gone wrong

You probably didn't wrap the onigiri while they were still warm, and the rice dried out. They need a little bit of moisture to be trapped inside the plastic wrap - not a lot, or they turn soggy - to preserve the texture.

Re: Onigiri On Parade: A guide to onigiri (omusubi) rice ...

Thank you; Pretty much all my questions regarding the making of 'Omusubi' answered. keep up the good work. Stanislav.

Re: Onigiri On Parade: A guide to onigiri (omusubi) rice ...

Spam musubi was probably my favorite food as a kid along with manapua. You should definitely try spam musubi its so easy too.

Re: Onigiri On Parade: A guide to onigiri (omusubi) rice ...

Hmm... it just occured to me that I could make a filling for these with my mom's meatball recipe. An old favorite of mine, she made meatballs with a cream of mushroom soup gravy and served them with rice and I always loved to put soy sauce on my meatballs with gravy. Goodness... I don't think I've had them since she died. Well, this website has inspired me in a special way today. Thank-you!

Re: Onigiri On Parade: A guide to onigiri (omusubi) rice ...

How does one go about making the onigiri with a filling by hand? I have molds, like a bunny, teddy, star etc.. but they're much too small I think to have a filling... plus it is time consuming scooping the rice into the molds etc. What size should the average onigiri filled with say.. shredded salmon be?

And how do you do it without burning your hands off?

thanks!!

Can't even finish the rice.

I dont understand. I have tried 3 times making a small potion of sushi rice to make origiri and everytime it take FOREVER for the slimy water to boil out and it NEVER DOES, it sticks to the pot and its never comes out fluffy, its comes like a slimy oats sorta thing. Ive followed the instructions on the bag and everything which is similar to this and it still comes out the same slimy way. Please help! I really wanna make this!

Re: Can't even finish the rice.

Okay, you know what? I always have this same problem whenever I try to cook under 1 cup of rice. So what I do now is just make more rice, then mold them, and store in the freezer for later use!

Re: Onigiri On Parade: A guide to onigiri (omusubi) rice ...

One american variant I have used is a small bit of cinnamon/sugar mix, either as a filling or a dusting. This makes a portable version of my mom's rice pudding.

Re: Onigiri On Parade: A guide to onigiri (omusubi) rice ...

hi,

need some advice with nori cutter, those that work like
staplers. do we need to "dismantle" them to wash and dry?

thks

Re: Onigiri On Parade: A guide to onigiri (omusubi) rice ...

Is there any way you can make onigiri with milk rice? Or some sweet version of onigiri? I can imagine something really nice with strawberries inside and dusted with cinnamon. Can you make japanese rice with coconut added to the water?

Re: Onigiri On Parade: A guide to onigiri (omusubi) rice ...

Hi! I'm trying to make bentos for my college lunches and made an onigiri. Well, the problem is, I didn't pay attention or read about it not being sushi rice flavors so all of my onigiris are sushi technically I guess you could say. (Made the rice vinegar substance)

I did put some in the fridge tomorrow for my lunch and two in the freezer for later this week. Is it going to go bad?

Also, I never smelled rice vinegar before and gosh, it smells terrible! Is there a way of getting rid of the smell? Especially on the rice? The rice itself tastes good (good thing I did something right...) but I can't take the smell. I eat sushi all the time at a restaurant I eat and never smell the smell. Is there a way they get rid of it?

And while I'm on the subject, when I just have ordinary rice in a bento (One tier full I guess you could say), is it just plain rice or is there something added?

I'm sorry if I post this in a wrong place, but thank you so much for the help!

Re: Onigiri On Parade: A guide to onigiri (omusubi) rice ...

Im a 19 african american and I was the first person in my family to actually try Sushi. I wanted to try it because of the manga and anime I read and watched. Now, I really want to try onigiri, my Vietnamese friend's mom and aunt usually make Onigiri during Holidays but I'm never around when they do. hehe :) I recently saw "Sushi Rice" in my local market and was thinking about getting some to make an attempt to make my own onigiri.!!

Re: Onigiri On Parade: A guide to onigiri (omusubi) rice ...

Hi, I'm very new to making onigiri and I stumbled upon this amazing blog before but wasn't confident in trying. Now I actually have the money and time to really start trying some of these. I'm also tired of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and I'm looking for something new to try.

Would anyone happen to know how to make multi colored onigiri? Like orange rice or blue rice possibly without using artificial dyes? I read an article that suggested grinded up vegetables like carrots or purree cabbage? Anyone have any ideas or comments on the matter? I'm sorry if this was asked before by the way! I will keep searching through the archives in the mean time.

Thank you for the help!

Re: Onigiri On Parade: A guide to onigiri (omusubi) rice ...

There's an article right here on this site: http://justbento.com/handbook/bento-decoration-techniques/all-natural-ve...

I dont do blue rice though, because to me blue food is not appetizing.

Alternate Filling: PB!!

I just tried making onigiri for the first time following your steps here! Other than my usual problem of burning the rice a bit (whoops, lol) they turned out great! They are lopsided but who cares, they are yummy :)
Just wanted to make a VERY non-traditional filling recommendation: peanut butter! As a vegetarian, I thought it would be great to pack some protein into these suckers so I filled them with about 1/2 tsp of peanut butter (for fairly small onigiri) and stuck a peanut on top of the rice. Probably easier to make using the saran-wrap method than with your hands, unless you don't mind sticky AND slimy hands.
I was worried the oil in the peanut butter would make the rice not stick but they stayed together very well and it was delicious!
Thanks for inspiring me :)

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