Onigiri (おにぎり) (Rice Balls)

Onigiri, Japanese rice balls, are an easy snack to make, and a great way to use up leftover rice. Sometimes onigiri are confused with sushi but they’re not- onigiri are made with plain steamed rice, while sushi are made of steamed rice seasoned with vinegar, salt, and sugar.

The most common, traditional fillings for onigiri in Japan include sha-ke (salted salmon), umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum), okaka (bonito flakes moistened with soy sauce), kombu (simmered kombu seaweed), tuna mayo (canned tuna with Japanese mayonnaise), and tarako (salted cod roe).  However, feel free to try out whatever fillings you like, or experiment with combinations of fillings for new flavor combos.


For Steamed Rice

• 2 cups uncooked Japanese short grain rice

• 2½ cups Water

For Making Onigiri

• Kosher salt

• 4 sheets nori (seaweed)

• Salted salmon (recipe follows)

• Okaka (recipe follows)

• Tuna Mayo (recipe follows)

• 3 umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum) (purchased)

• seasoned kombu (purchased)

• white and black sesame seeds (roasted/toasted) (to garnish)

For Salted Salmon

• 1 fillet salmon

• Kosher salt

For Okaka

• 2 packages Katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) (2 packs = 6 g)

• 2 Tbsp soy sauce

For Tuna Mayo

• 1 canned tuna (2.5 oz = 70 g)

• 2 Tbsp Japanese mayonnaise

• ½ Tbsp soy sauce

To Prepare Steamed Rice:

  1. Put the rice in a large bowl and gently wash the rice in a circular motion and discard the water. Repeat this process about 3-4 times.
  2. Let the rice soak in water for 30 minutes. Transfer the rice into a sieve and drain completely, at least 15 minutes. You can cook using a rice cooker, or:
  • Combine the rice and water in a heavy-bottom pot. Cover the lid and bring it to a boil over medium heat.
  • Once water is boiling, turn the heat to the lowest setting and continue to cook covered for 12 to 13 minutes, or until the water is completely absorbed. At 12-13 minute mark, take a quick peek and if you see there is any water left, close the lid and continue cooking for another minute or so.
  • Remove the pot (with the lid on) from the heat and let it steam for another 10 minutes. Then transfer the rice to a large plate (I use Sushi Oke). Fluff the rice with a rice scooper. Let the cooked rice cool a little bit until you can hold rice without burning your hands. However, do not let the rice completely cool down.

To Prepare Onigiri Fillings:

While rice is soaking and draining (45 minutes), prepare your onigiri fillings.

  • Salted salmon filling: Sprinkle kosher salt on both sides of the salmon fillet. Bake at 400 ºF (200 ºC) degrees in a toaster oven or oven for 25 minutes.Break the cooked salmon into flakes and set aside.
  • Umeboshi filling: Place umeboshi (Japanese pickled plums) on a 10” x 10” sheet of plastic wrap. Fold in half and squeeze the seed out from each umeboshi. Discard the seeds and keep the umeboshi flesh.
  • Okaka filling: Put katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) in a bowl and add 2 Tbsp soy sauce. Mix to combine. Katsuobushi should be moisten but soy sauce should not be left at the bottom of the bowl.
  • Tuna mayo filling: Put drained canned tuna in a bowl and add 2 Tbsp Japanese mayonnaise and ½ Tbsp soy sauce. Mix to combine.
  • Seasoned kombu filling: Put the purchased seasoned kombu in a bowl for easy access later.

To Make Onigiri:

  1. Cut the nori sheets in thirds (1/3).
  2. Wet both of your hands with water in order to keep the rice from sticking to your hands.
  3. Put some salt in your hands and rub to spread all around your palms. How much salt? Dip 3 finger tips in kosher salt (if you use table salt, use half this amount since it’s saltier than kosher salt).
  4. Scoop out a handful of warm rice (about 1/3 cup) into one hand. Create a small well (indentation) in the center of the rice. Put one kind of fillings (about 1-2 tsp.) inside. Then mold the rice with your hands around the well to cover your filling completely.
  5. Press the rice around the filling to gently form the rice into a triangle. Use three fingers (thumb, index finger, middle finger) to make a triangle corner. Your hands should be just firm enough so the onigiri doesn’t fall apart. Don’t squeeze the rice too tight!
  6. Wrap the onigiri with nori (seaweed).
  7. Place a little bit of each filling on top of onigiri so you know which kind it is.
Alternative Method:
  1. If you don’t want to touch the rice at all, you can place a piece of plastic wrap in a rice bowl (or any small bowl) and put the rice on top. Sprinkle some kosher salt (remember, salt is used to preserve the rice for a long time here).
  2. Pull the plastic wrap corners and twist a few times.
  3. Form into a triangle shape as described above.

If neither method of forming by hand works for you, you can also use onigiri molds- they are inexpensive and convenient to use. Just make sure you dip the mold into water periodically and sprinkle the inside of the mold with a bit of salt to make properly seasoned onigiri that release easily.


Tips & Techniques for Making Onigiri:

1. Use Freshly Cooked Rice

Let the cooked rice cool just slightly before making them.  It should be warm/hot when you make onigiri.

2. Wet Your Hands

It’s important to wet your hands with water to prevent the rice from sticking. Prepare a bowl of water next to your working station.

3. Salt Your Hands

Salt both your hands and rub to spread all around. This helps to keep the onigiri for a longer time as long as flavoring the onigiri.

4. Give Just Enough Pressure

Your hands should be just firm enough when pressing the onigiri so the rice doesn’t fall apart and shape into the typical triangle, ball, or cylinder shapes. You don’t want to squeeze the rice too tight.

5. Use a Kitchen Towel to Save Onigiri for the Next Day

If you want to make onigiri for lunch next day but don’t want to wake up early, here’s my tip. You can wrap the finished onigiri (in plastic wrap) with thick kitchen towel to protect from being too cold in the refrigerator. Rice gets hard in the refrigerator but with this easy trick, your onigiri will be cool enough to stay safe.