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What Is Onigiri?

Diane Goettel
Updated Feb 22, 2024
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Onigiri is a Japanese food that is made out of sushi rice that is shaped into an oval or triangle, stuffed with a sour or savory filling, and wrapped in seaweed. Despite the fact that the food is made with sushi rice, it is not considered to be sushi. Some of the most common onigiri fillings include salmon, tuna, pickled fruit, kelp, and fish roe. Onigiri is commonly served as a sort of fast food in Japan. Its shape and the fact that it is wrapped in seaweed makes it rather easy to eat on the go. One onigiri serves as a good snack while two or three can take the place of a meal.

While sushi is most commonly found in restaurants, onigiri is sold in convenience stores in Asia. The ingredients that are used to make this rice ball snack are rather affordable, which means that the final result is an affordable snack that is on par with the prices of other convenience store snacks. In Asia, there are also some shops that specialize in onigiri and sell only variations of this kind of food. These shops usually sell rice balls of various shapes and with various fillings.

The amount of seaweed that is used to cover the exterior of onigiri also varies. There are some styles in which the entire rice ball is covered in dried seaweed. These are especially easy to eat without the use of utensils. There are also some that are made with just a single band of seaweed. This creates a small surface area of seaweed that can be grasped by the thumb and one finger while the treat is being consumed.

Sometimes the exteriors of onigiri are decorated so that they resemble faces. Strips of seaweed and vegetables are used to create eyes, noses, and mouths. The faces may be human or animal. These sorts of onigiri are enjoyed by children and adults alike.

There are some variations of onigiri in which the filling is visible on one or more sides of the morsel. This is a bit more difficult to prepare than the standard variety of the dish. This is because in the standard form, the filling is placed at the center of the patty of rice which is then shaped. In this unique form of the dish, the filling has to be worked so that it can be seen from the outside.

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Diane Goettel
By Diane Goettel
In addition to her work as a freelance writer for WiseGEEK, Diane Goettel serves as the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. Over the course, she has edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter “Sapling,” and The Adirondack Review. Diane holds a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

Discussion Comments

By ysmina — On Jun 17, 2011

I tried making onigiri at home and it turned out really good, I'm happy! I read several different recipes to compare them and all the recipes are pretty much the same. You just have to make the rice balls correctly and putting in the filling you want is the easy part.

My suggestions for those wanting to make onigiri at home would be to first get Japanese rice. My roommate tried making it with basmati rice and that was a failure. I think only Japanese rice sticks together, so trying other kinds of rice won't work.

My other suggestion is to start shaping the onigiri at the right time. It shouldn't be cold, or again, it doesn't form the right shape. My hands are kind of sensitive and even though I let the rice cool down for about five minutes, it was still very hot. So I used saran wrap to help form the balls. I put the rice on the wrap and held it that way.

If you can get the hang of shaping the rice, the rest is easy. You can add some water and salt on your hands to make it stick together better. If you don't like seaweed (nori), you don't have to put it on the onigiri. Sometimes I put seaweed, but sometimes I don't. It tastes just as good without it.

By burcidi — On Jun 16, 2011

Onigiri with fish or pickled veggie fillings are the classics but there are many new flavors and fillings out there these days. My favorite fillings are chicken, salmon and mayonnaise and breaded shrimp. There are many other fillings though and I think they are coming up with new flavors and combinations to boost sales. I don't mind! I like trying different kinds of onigiri. It's kind of exciting to see what a new one is like.

I do always go back to original onigiris with plain rice and veggie fillings though. It's sort of my comfort food. When I'm sick, I only want to have some onigiri.

Oh and if you are wondering how fresh they are since they are sold packaged at the store, they are very fresh. No one would eat stale or old onigiri anyway, so stores have to make sure that they are stocked fresh. I think they have them delivered in small amounts throughout the day to make sure it won't go to waste.

It's great, you can always find fresh onigiri and in tens of different flavors to try.

By turquoise — On Jun 15, 2011

I think onigiri is the most popular snack food in Japan. When I was in Japan, I saw it everywhere, literally! It was sold in the street and all grocery stores. Some large stores had an isle full of onigiri. I actually think that this is great, because onigiri is really a healthy food. If we ate onigiri as a regular snack food / junk food instead of fried and processed foods, we would be much better off.

The other interesting thing I saw in Japan with onigiri was the different shapes they came in. A lot of them were shaped as a triangle or a round ball. But some of them had really unique and cute shapes. Some were shapes like stars, hearts and teddy bears. I even saw one that looked like Hello Kitty! I think kids especially loved those.

I was not very familiar with Japanese food when I went to Japan and I must say that onigiri became my favorite because it's a very simple food but also very tasty. I think everyone in our group loved onigiri, we had it as a snack every single day we were there.

Diane Goettel

Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for WiseGEEK, Diane Goettel serves as the executive editor of Black...
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