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Onigiri (Rice Balls) with Pickled Plum

April 22, 2012

Ever make too much rice and wonder what to do with the leftovers? I often have this problem, and not just with rice. Sometimes (= Thanksgiving) leftovers are awesome, but plain old rice as a leftover is particularly sad.* Refrigerated rice tends to dry out and harden, its nutty flavor growing blander as it’s chilled.

The way I see it, when your main course is the limiting reagent that runs out first, leaving you with half a pot of rice, your only good options are:

1) Stick it in the fridge, and use it to make fried rice the next night.
2) Stick it in the fridge, and later top it with furikake flavorings (or make Ochazuke).
3) If it’s short-grained (sticky) Japanese rice, you can make onigiri!

Onigiri, also called omusubi, are Japanese triangle-shaped rice balls.** They are Japan’s version of sandwiches to-go (and I say that knowing full well that Japan also has a gigantic industry of selling on-the-go sandwiches, usually sold with crusts removed and already sliced on the diagonal).*** Convenience stores offer plastic-wrapped sandwiches and onigiri side by side, the rice balls cleverly double-wrapped so that the seaweed stays crispy in the plastic folds, and doesn’t come into contact with the sticky rice until just before you eat it.

The rice can either be mixed through with powdered furikake flavors (like seaweed, egg, salmon, shrimp, wasabi, or sesame), or it can be plain with a little dab of filling hidden in the center of the rice ball. Popular onigiri fillings are tuna mayo, pickled plum, salmon, raw fatty tuna with scallions, mentaiko (fish roe), shrimp mayo, and kimchi pork.

At home, I like to make them with pickled plum (umeboshi— technically a type of tiny apricot). If you’ve never had umeboshi before, you might be surprised at the strength of the sourness. Some people probably find it overwhelming; I find it addictive. (In small quantities.) To me, it is one of the more perfect rice ball fillings, since I’ve eaten onigiri that could use a tad more tuna and mayo, but a little bit of pickled plum goes a long way.


And let me emphasize the best part: they’re portable! I don’t restrict my onigiri-making to a way of using up leftovers; I also sometimes cook up a batch of rice intended purely for making rice balls to take to lunch the next day. All you need is plastic wrap, and later– optionally– seaweed, and you don’t even need to refrigerate them. In fact they’re better if you don’t.

Onigiri are basically a super smart way of making rice extremely compact and convenient. A well-made rice ball will stick together, even if you are holding it in one hand as you drive or walk or bike.

So maybe you made too much sticky rice for dinner, or maybe you rarely make rice at home, but still have that bag of Japanese rice sitting around from the time you decided to take up homemade sushi-rolling as a hobby, and only made it once… Either way, try making your own onigiri and you can waste less food and end up with a speedy, satisfying snack.

* Unless you also have some leftover curry or another sauce-y dish to heat up over it, but even then, fresh rice is better.

** These are popular in Korea too, where they are called Samgak Kimbap (literally, “triangle sushi”).

*** Contrary to (what I’ve found seems to be) popular belief, people do eat bread in Japan, and many people eat it often!


Onigiri (Rice Balls) with Pickled Plum

(Makes about 4 rice balls)

~ 2½ cups cooked Japanese short-grained sticky rice (the yield from a little over 1 cup of uncooked rice)
~ pinch of salt (for each rice ball)
~ 1 pickled plum (for each rice ball), halved with the pit removed, or other filling of your choice
~ instead of a filling, use several teaspoons of furikake powder to mix into the rice
~ to wrap around each onigiri: ½ sheet of nori seaweed

How to make it:

1. Prepare the sticky rice. (I use about a 115% water to rice ratio.) Place rice, water, a bit of oil or butter, and (optionally) salt, into a small saucepan with a tightly-fitting lid. Briefly stir the oil/butter and salt into the rice, then cover the pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Keep a close watch– it should only take 2-3 minutes to boil because of the small amount of water. As soon as it comes to a boil, give it one more stir, then replace the lid, and bring the heat down to the lowest it will go. Simmer covered for 15 minutes, until it looks like all the water has evaporated, but before the rice starts looking dry. Then remove the pot from the burner, but keep the lid on, letting the rice steam for another 5 minutes until fluffy.


2. Let the rice cool enough to hold it in your hands. Then, either mix furikake into your rice, or prepare your onigiri fillings (e.g., halve and remove the pits from the umeboshi pickled plums).

3. Shape the onigiri: Wet your hands with water, and spread a pinch of salt across one of your palms. Then use your hands to pick up about a ⅔-cup-size handful of rice, and begin to squeeze it tightly to form it into a ball. (This squeezing or grasping action is what the “nigiri” part of the name o-nigiri means.) Then start flattening the ball and shape it into a rounded triangle.


4. Add the fillings: If using tuna or pickled plum– instead of mixed-in furikake– press a small amount of the filling into the center of the triangle, then carefully squeeze the whole triangle so that it regains its shape and doesn’t crumble apart. Or easier yet, stick the filling into the center of your handful of rice (in step #3), before shaping it into a triangle!

5. Take for lunch the next day: Wrap individual rice balls tightly in plastic wrap, and store them OUTSIDE of the fridge. Enjoy within 24 hours, either on their own or by wrapping a crispy sheet of seaweed around each rice ball just before eating. Or eat them right away, while they’re still warm, if you can’t wait that long!

Print this recipe!

14 Comments leave one →
  1. April 22, 2012 6:38 pm


    • April 22, 2012 7:03 pm


  2. April 22, 2012 8:06 pm

    I love onigiri! We used to make them with leftover sushi rice but we don’t make homemade sushi much anymore. I should make these, though–they’re always popular with the kiddos. And we loved the convenience store version when we were traveling in Japan, it was always a fun surprise to find out what was inside. :)

    • April 23, 2012 11:16 am

      Yes, onigiri are great! And they’re definitely easier to make than sushi, if you have less time, and need a fast way to get the next day’s lunch ready (even if they have nothing to do with your dinner). I love the convenience store versions, too. And I didn’t even get a chance to write about the convenience store kind that is (flattened but) round, instead of triangular, and has real vegetables, like bamboo shoot and mushrooms, mixed in…

  3. April 23, 2012 8:19 am

    Thank you for this–Hawaii style is similar, triangle shape + ume red center + a smaller sheet of seaweed at the base.

    • April 23, 2012 11:19 am

      Oh cool, I knew there were similar rice balls in Hawaii, but I thought they were mostly made using spam! (And aren’t they more often called o-musubi instead of o-nigiri there?)

  4. August 15, 2012 2:37 pm

    You know, I went through a phase of making onigiri but then forgot about them. Seeing your post reminds me how good they can be, especially now when I have nice shiso in my garden: those leaves make a lovely wrap for them.

    • August 15, 2012 3:30 pm

      Onigiri are the best! Especially if you have shiso leaves to wrap them in… or to chop and mix throughout the rice. (I have trouble finding fresh shiso leaves where I live.)

  5. September 20, 2012 1:06 pm

    Yum –I love these with salmon stuffed in the rice.

    • September 20, 2012 6:52 pm

      Me too! Especially with a dab of Japanese mayonnaise.


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