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Assorted onigiri on traditional Japanese furoshiki cloth with garden background, showcasing traditional and modern fillings

What is Onigiri and Why Should You Try Iconic Japanese Rice Balls?

05/04/2024 12:00 AM

Explore the charming world of onigiri, Japan's beloved rice balls. Perfect for a quick snack, they range from classic umeboshi to trendy tuna mayo. We'll take you through their rich history, share where to find the tastiest ones in Tokyo, and teach you how to whip up your own.

Table of Contents

Onigiri, Japan's iconic rice balls, are a beloved snack and convenience food enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. These portable, triangular-shaped rice balls are stuffed with a variety of savory fillings, ranging from traditional salted plum (umeboshi) to more modern options like tuna mayo or teriyaki chicken.

The Enduring Popularity of Onigiri in Japan

Busy Tokyo convenience store aisle with customers selecting onigiri, highlighting the snackOnigiri's popularity in Japan can be traced back centuries, with its origins rooted in the traditional Japanese rice culture. These compact, easy-to-eat rice balls were the perfect portable sustenance for travelers, samurai, and farmers alike. Today, onigiri remains an integral part of Japanese food culture, with convenience stores and specialty shops offering a vast array of fillings and flavors to cater to diverse tastes.

The History of Onigiri

Historical depiction of samurai and travelers eating onigiri in ancient Japan, with Mount Fuji and rice fields in the background
The earliest known records of onigiri date back to the 11th century, when they were mentioned in the literary classic 'The Tale of Genji.' Initially, onigiri were simple balls of salted rice, often wrapped in bamboo or persimmon leaves to preserve freshness. As Japanese cuisine evolved, so did the fillings and flavors of onigiri, with ingredients like pickled plums (umeboshi), salted salmon (shake), and bonito flakes (katsuobushi) becoming popular additions.

Where to Find the Best Onigiri in Tokyo


For travelers visiting Tokyo, finding delicious onigiri is a breeze. Convenience stores like 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart offer a wide selection of pre-made onigiri, perfect for a quick snack or light meal on the go. Specialty shops like Onigiri Asakusa Yadoroku and Onigiri Bongo offer a more gourmet experience, with artisanal fillings and meticulously crafted rice balls.

Prices for onigiri in Tokyo can vary depending on where you purchase them. Convenience stores offer the most budget-friendly options, while specialty shops and department store delis tend to be more expensive but often feature premium ingredients and fillings. Here's a general price comparison:

Onigiri Price Comparison in Tokyo

Shop Average Price (JPY)
Convenience Stores 100 - 200
Specialty Shops 200 - 500
Department Store Delis 300 - 800

No matter your budget, there's an onigiri option to suit your taste and wallet in Tokyo. Convenience stores are great for grabbing a quick, inexpensive snack, while specialty shops and department stores offer more indulgent, gourmet experiences.

For those looking to explore more affordable culinary delights, our guide on budget dining in Japan offers some tips on eating in Japan without breaking the bank.

Making Wakame and Toasted Sesame Onigiri at Home

Step-by-step preparation of wakame and toasted sesame onigiri, from ingredient prep to final delicious product

One of the delightful fillings you can try making at home is the wakame and toasted sesame onigiri. This combination offers a delightful blend of savory umami flavors and a delightful crunch from the sesame seeds. Here's the easy onigiri recipe with a few tasty variations:

Ingredients:

- 3 tablespoons dried wakame seaweed
- 2 tablespoons white sesame seeds, toasted until deep golden brown
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped green onions

Instructions:

When preparing the rice for your onigiri, you can simplify the process by using a rice cooker. After washing the rice, add it to your rice cooker with the appropriate amount of water as specified by your cooker's instructions, and select the setting for sushi rice to ensure the cooked rice comes out sticky and holds together well for making onigiri.


1. Rehydrate the wakame in warm water for about 30 minutes, then squeeze out excess water and finely chop.
2. Toast the sesame seeds in a dry pan over medium heat until they turn a deep golden brown, stirring frequently. Allow to cool.
3. In a bowl, mix together the chopped wakame, toasted sesame seeds, and salt.
4. For variations, you can add a tablespoon of soy sauce for extra umami flavor, a teaspoon of sesame oil for added nuttiness, and/or a tablespoon of finely chopped green onions for freshness.
5. Fold the wakame and sesame mixture into freshly cooked, still warm rice.
6. Using slightly salted hands, form the rice mixture into triangular or cylindrical shapes to create your onigiri.

Serve these homemade wakame and toasted sesame onigiri warm or at room temperature. They make a delightful snack or light meal and are perfect for picnics or lunchboxes. Get creative with other fillings and variations to suit your taste preferences!

Conclusion


Onigiri is a quintessential Japanese food experience that should not be missed by foreign travelers. With its portable convenience, diverse fillings, and deep cultural significance, these iconic rice balls offer a delicious glimpse into Japan's rich culinary heritage. Whether grabbing a quick snack from a convenience store or indulging in a gourmet creation from a specialty shop, onigiri is a must-try for any visitor to Japan.

Family enjoying a picnic with onigiri under cherry blossoms, symbolizing the food

FAQs:

In our FAQ section, we cover a range of frequently asked questions about onigiri. From health aspects to their shelf life and the best ways to enjoy them, we've compiled answers to help you get to know more about this delightful snack.

Q: What is onigiri made of?


A: Onigiri is made of rice that is shaped into a triangular or cylindrical form and typically filled with a savory filling, such as salted plum (umeboshi), tuna mayo, or grilled salmon.

Q: Is onigiri healthy?


A: Onigiri can be a relatively healthy snack or meal option, as it is made primarily of rice and can contain nutrient-rich fillings like fish, vegetables, or seaweed. However, some varieties may be high in sodium or contain processed ingredients, so moderation is key.

Q: How do you eat onigiri?


A: Onigiri is designed to be eaten with your hands. It is typically wrapped in nori (dried seaweed) or a plastic wrapper, which can be removed before eating. Some people also enjoy dipping onigiri in soy sauce or furikake (a seasoning made of dried fish, seaweed, and sesame seeds).

Q: How long does onigiri last?


A: Fresh, homemade onigiri is best eaten within a few hours of preparation. Pre-made onigiri from convenience stores or shops typically have a shelf life of 1-2 days when stored at room temperature. Refrigerating onigiri can extend its shelf life by a few more days.

Q: Where did onigiri originate?


A: Onigiri has its origins in traditional Japanese rice culture, with the earliest known records dating back to the 11th century. It was initially a simple ball of salted rice, often wrapped in bamboo or persimmon leaves, and was a portable food for travelers, samurai, and farmers.

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zenDine blog author

Sakura is a content creator based in Osaka, writing for the zenDine platform. Born and raised in the city, she has a deep connection with its vibrant street food culture and bustling markets.

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