When I was in Japan, I ate a lot of rice balls. I haven’t ever found them in the United States (except Hawaii, but I suspect that’s because they get a lot of Japanese tourists). If you’ve never tried a Japanese rice ball, you’re in for a treat. These delicious, convenient, hearty little snacks are as versatile as they are easy to make. (Bonus for you allergy sufferers out there like myself: they are gluten free for the most part, depending on the filling…if you find yourself in Japan, I find tuna and mayonaise to be a good and reliably available GF option for those hangry moments).
In Japan, you can walk into any convenience store (7 Eleven, Family Mart, Lawsons, etc.) and pick up a rice ball (known as Onigiri) in the flavor of your choice. Popular flavors in Japan include tuna with mayonnaise (cooked tuna, like the kind you get in a tuna can), salmon, salted cod roe, dried kelp, vegetables, pork, chicken, etc. These are popular as snacks or as part of a bento lunch, and they are really affordable. Did I mention how easy to make they are?
After visiting Japan and eating lots of these little delicious packages of yumminess, I decided I wanted to be able to have them at home. The only problem is that at home in California I can’t just pop into a 7 Eleven and pick one up like I could in Japan. Our 7 Elevens have fruit, salads, guacamole, hummus, and even sushi rolls, but sadly no onigiri. The only solution was to make them myself at home.
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You can make rice balls with no equipment at all by shaping them with your hands, but I highly recommend you purchase a rice ball mold if you are serious about making them. It makes life a lot easier. The standard ones come in a triangular shape, which is the one I bought, but they also have a lot of fun shapes you can get so you can have rice balls in all kinds of shapes. Personally, I purchased this starter kit that not only comes with the rice ball mold, but also with the seaweed wrappers, etc. that you’ll need to make your rice balls the authentic way.
So, how do you make one?
It’s incredibly easy! First, you’ll need to cook your rice. You’ll want to get the kind of rice they use for sushi. You should make sure you’re purchasing short grain rice, which is great because it’s sticky. Other varieties of rice won’t stick together the way short grain rice will, so your rice ball will fall apart with other varieties. If you’re not sure which rice to get, look for rice labeled ‘sushi rice’. That kind will definitely work. Cook it up according to package directions.
Then comes the fun part….
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You can fill your rice balls with anything you want. You can try some of the popular Japanese flavors if you want, but don’t feel limited by those fillings…get creative! I put shredded barbecue chicken in mine at one point and it was delicious! This can be modified to your palette, so try it with your favorite fillings.
Set your mold down and fill a little less than halfway with rice. Then put your filling inside, careful not to overfill. Then put more rice on top and press down hard on the mold so it squishes together. That’s it!
If you want to try it the way they eat it in Japan, you can wrap a sheet of nori seaweed around it, which I not only enjoy the flavor of but I also find that it helps keep your rice ball together. However, seaweed is optional if you’re not a fan.
Enjoy your rice balls! You’ll be transporting yourself to the busy streets of Tokyo. Imagine yourself rushing through Shinjuku station and stopping by a convenience store for a quick and healthy bite on your way to explore the hustle and bustle of the Japanese capital city.
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Have you tried onigiri? Have you made your own at home? What’s your favorite flavor?