zenDine Logo

Discover the Delicious Tradition of Onigiri in Japan

Table of Contents

Are you a fan of sushi? Then you will surely love onigiri! Onigiri, also known as rice balls, is a popular snack in Japan that is both delicious and convenient. It is made by molding seasoned rice into a triangular or cylindrical shape and filling it with various ingredients, such as salted salmon, pickled plum, and tuna mayonnaise.

Onigiri has been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, and it is commonly eaten as a quick meal on the go or packed in bento boxes for picnics and lunch at school or work. In this article, we will explore the history, variations, and health benefits of onigiri. We will also provide step-by-step instructions on how to make onigiri at home and share some tips on Japanese onigiri etiquette and traditions.

Get ready to discover the delicious world of onigiri!

What is Onigiri?

japanese onigiri

If you're new to the world of Japanese cuisine, you may be wondering what onigiri actually is. Essentially, onigiri is a traditional Japanese rice ball made with seasoned rice and often filled with various ingredients. It's typically shaped into a triangle or oval shape, and often wrapped in a strip of nori seaweed to make it easy to hold and eat.

Onigiri is a popular snack and meal option in Japan, thanks to its convenience and delicious taste. It's perfect for eating on the go, whether you're out sightseeing or running errands. While it may seem simple, onigiri is actually quite versatile and offers a wide variety of fillings and flavors to suit any taste.

The History of Onigiri

Onigiri is a traditional Japanese food that has been enjoyed for centuries. It has its roots as a portable food for travelers and was originally made by packing cooked rice into a compact shape that was easy to carry and eat on the go.

Over time, onigiri has evolved, and different regions in Japan have developed their own unique styles and fillings. However, the most common shape for onigiri is the triangle, which is believed to have originated in the Edo period.

Onigiri also has cultural and historical significance in Japan. For example, during the Heian period, onigiri was offered to the gods during Shinto rituals as a symbol of gratitude and respect. In modern Japan, onigiri is often associated with childhood memories and is a staple in bento boxes and picnic baskets.

The Evolution of Onigiri

As onigiri grew in popularity, more fillings were added and different shapes were created. The round shape, for example, was introduced in the Kansai region and is often filled with pickled plum (umeboshi). In Nagoya, a rectangular-shaped onigiri called kakuonigiri is popular.

Today, onigiri is available in a wide variety of flavors and fillings. Traditional options include salted salmon (shiozake), tuna with mayonnaise (tsuna mayo), and pickled plum (umeboshi). However, there are also contemporary fillings like teriyaki chicken, shrimp tempura, and even cheese.

The popularity of onigiri shows no signs of slowing down, and it remains a beloved symbol of Japanese cuisine.

Popular Fillings for Onigiri

onigiri types

Onigiri is a versatile snack that can be filled with a wide variety of ingredients, making it a popular option for people with different tastes. Here are some of the most popular fillings used in onigiri:

Fillings Description
Salted Salmon (Shake) A classic filling made by grilling salmon and seasoning it with salt. It has a savory and slightly salty flavor that goes well with rice.
Pickled Plum (Umeboshi) A traditional and tangy filling made by pickling plums in salt and red shiso leaves. It adds a sour and refreshing flavor to onigiri.
Tuna Mayonnaise (Tuna Mayo) A modern and creamy filling made by mixing canned tuna with mayonnaise. It's a popular filling for people who prefer a milder taste.
Katsuobushi and Soy Sauce (Katsuobushi Shoyu) A savory filling made with dried and smoked skipjack tuna (katsuobushi) and soy sauce. It has a rich and umami flavor that complements the rice.

Additionally, onigiri can be filled with other meats and vegetables like chicken, beef, carrots, and cucumber. Some regional variations include fillings like mentaiko (spicy cod roe), konbu (dried kelp), and natto (fermented soybeans).

Contemporary Fillings for Onigiri

In recent years, onigiri has been reinvented with more creative and unconventional fillings. Here are some popular contemporary options:

  • Teriyaki chicken
  • Grilled eel (Unagi)
  • Tempura shrimp
  • Avocado and wasabi
  • Kimchi and pork

These fillings add a new dimension to the traditional snack and offer more adventurous tastes for those willing to try something new.

Making Onigiri at Home

Want to recreate the delicious experience of onigiri in your own home? Follow these simple steps:

  1. Start by washing 2 cups of Japanese short-grain rice and adding it to a rice cooker with 2 1/4 cups of water.
  2. Once the rice has cooked, mix in 3 tbsp of rice vinegar, 1 tsp of salt, and 1 tsp of sugar. Allow the rice to cool slightly before handling.
  3. Prepare your fillings of choice. Some popular options include grilled salmon, pickled plum, or tuna mayonnaise.
  4. Wet your hands and sprinkle them with salt to prevent the rice from sticking. Take a small handful of rice and shape it into a triangle or ball.
  5. Make a small indentation in the center of the rice ball and add your filling. Cover the filling with more rice and shape the onigiri into its final form.
  6. Wrap your onigiri in a strip of nori seaweed and serve immediately, or pack them up for a convenient snack on the go.

Don't be afraid to get creative with your fillings or shapes - the possibilities are endless!

Onigiri as a Traditional Snack

onigiri snack

Onigiri is a beloved traditional snack in Japan, enjoyed by people of all ages for centuries. It's a perfect grab-and-go option for those on the run, whether you're going for a hike, heading to work, or just need a quick snack.

It's also a popular addition to bento boxes, the staple Japanese lunchbox that typically includes rice, vegetables, and meat or fish. Onigiri is a versatile addition to any bento box, providing a filling and satisfying option that's easy to digest.

Onigiri is commonly enjoyed at picnics, as well as during cherry blossom viewing parties and other cultural events. It's also a staple in convenience stores, where you can find a variety of flavors and fillings to suit your taste.

Onigiri in Modern Japanese Cuisine

While onigiri has a rich history as a traditional snack, it has also found a place in modern Japanese cuisine. Today, there are restaurants and shops dedicated solely to onigiri, serving up creative twists on the classic snack.

One popular variation is the 'yaki onigiri,' which is grilled or pan-fried and often served with soy sauce or miso paste. Another is the 'onigirazu,' which replaces the nori seaweed wrap with a layer of rice and fillings wrapped in a sheet of Japanese omelette. And for those with a sweet tooth, there are dessert onigiri filled with sweet adzuki bean paste or fruit.

Beyond these creative variations, onigiri has also been incorporated into fusion recipes, combining Japanese flavors with other cuisines. For example, you may find onigiri stuffed with Korean-style bulgogi or Mexican-inspired fillings like avocado and salsa.

No matter the variation, onigiri remains a beloved and convenient snack in Japan and continues to evolve with the changing tastes of modern cuisine.

Health Benefits of Onigiri

Onigiri not only offers a delicious snack option, but also has several health benefits.

Firstly, the rice used in onigiri is a good source of carbohydrates, providing energy to the body.

Many onigiri fillings contain protein, such as salmon or tuna, which helps promote muscle growth and repair.

The inclusion of vegetables such as pickled radish or seaweed in onigiri provides essential nutrients and vitamins to the body.

Furthermore, the portion size of onigiri is typically small, making it a great option for portion control and weight management.

Overall, onigiri is a tasty and healthy snack option that can be enjoyed on the go or as part of a balanced meal.

Onigiri in Popular Culture

Onigiri has become a popular food item in Japanese pop culture, making appearances in anime, manga, and movies. In the anime Naruto, onigiri is commonly eaten by the character Naruto as a quick snack. The manga Shokugeki no Soma features a character who specializes in creating onigiri with unique and unexpected fillings. In the movie Midnight Diner, onigiri is a staple menu item at the diner and serves as a symbol of cultural identity.

Onigiri Etiquette and Traditions

When it comes to eating onigiri in Japan, there are a few etiquette rules and traditions to keep in mind:

  • It is common to unwrap the nori seaweed before eating the onigiri.
  • Do not bite directly into the onigiri; instead, take small, delicate bites.
  • Before eating, express gratitude by saying 'itadakimasu.'
  • If sharing onigiri with others, use chopsticks to transfer the onigiri to their plate instead of passing it directly with your hands.

While these traditions may seem foreign to some, they are an important part of Japanese culture and should be respected when enjoying this delicious snack.


Onigiri is a delicious and convenient snack that has captured the hearts and taste buds of the Japanese people for centuries. Its versatility in terms of fillings and flavors allows for endless variations, making it a snack that never gets old. Whether enjoying onigiri for lunch, as a quick snack on the go, or as part of a traditional Japanese picnic, it continues to be an integral part of Japanese cuisine and culture.

We hope this article has provided you with a deeper understanding of onigiri and its significance in Japanese culture. Whether you try making it at home or seek out authentic onigiri experiences in Japan, we encourage you to explore this delicious tradition and experience its unique flavors and textures for yourself.


Onigiri, also known as omusubi or rice ball, is a traditional Japanese food made of white rice formed into a triangle or round shape and often filled with various ingredients like pickles, salmon, plum, roe, or other popular fillings.

Some popular onigiri fillings include pickled plum (umeboshi), bonito flakes (katsuobushi), salted salmon (shiozake), grilled fish, chicken, tuna mayo, and fried rice (yaki onigiri).

To make onigiri, start by cooking fresh Japanese rice. Once the rice is cooked, let it cool slightly, as it is easier to handle when it's not too hot. Then, wet your hands with water to prevent the rice from sticking, take a handful of rice and form it into a triangle or round shape. Make a small indentation in the center to place your desired filling. Finally, wrap the finished onigiri with a sheet of dried seaweed (nori).

While it is traditionally made with Japanese short-grain white rice, you can experiment with using other types of rice such as brown rice or sushi rice. However, be aware that the texture and consistency of the onigiri may vary depending on the type of rice used.

It's important to use freshly cooked rice and handle it gently when making onigiri to prevent it from falling apart. The stickiness of the freshly cooked rice helps to bind the grains together, ensuring the onigiri holds its shape. Additionally, wetting your hands with water before shaping the rice can also help in preventing it from sticking to your hands.

Yes, you can make onigiri in advance. To keep them fresh, wrap each onigiri tightly with plastic wrap or place them in an airtight container. It's best to consume them within a day for optimal taste and texture.

Yes, onigiri can be found in various shapes such as triangular, round, cylindrical, or even creative shapes like animal characters. The shape often depends on personal preference or the region in Japan where it originated.

Onigirazu is a type of onigiri that is made by layering the rice and fillings onto a sheet of seaweed, then folding it like a sandwich. It is a convenient way to enjoy onigiri without the hassle of shaping individual rice balls.

Yes, onigiri is a popular and beloved food in Japan. It is commonly consumed as a quick snack or a light meal and can be found in various convenience stores or specialty shops throughout the country.

Onigiri has a long history dating back to the Kamakura period in Japan (1185-1333). Originally, onigiri was used as a portable and convenient way to carry and eat rice during travels or outdoor activities. Over time, it has become a staple in Japanese cuisine and has evolved to include a wide variety of fillings and shapes.