Is it a donut? Is it a dumpling? No, it’s a rice ball! After growing up watching some of your favorite cartoon characters eat these infamous rice balls, you’ve come to Japan and want to try one of these classic snacks yourself. Rice balls, or onigiri, have been popularized by TV shows and video games around the world over the last 20 years as a staple of Japanese cuisine.
From Childhood TV Show to Your Plate
Onigiri are a traditional breakfast / lunchtime dish found throughout Japan. If you are unfamiliar with this delicacy, they are literally just a ball of rice with a tasty treat on the inside. Probably one of the most unusual Kinder Surprises you will ever see. Some of the most common fillings for onigiri include salmon, fish eggs, and tuna mayonnaise. But there is a wide selection of common ingredients for a traditional onigiri. Please be sure to look at the label for what each flavor is. There is usually an image of the filling, and occasionally it will even be written in English. For your reference, 梅 is pickled plum flavor, ツナマヨネーズ is tuna mayonaise, and 焼きしゃけ is salmon. (More ingredients listed at the end.) But be careful! There are tons of flavors out there, and not all of them may be friendly to Western palates.
Over the years the variety of onigiri flavors has exploded. As more western flavors are introduced, such as fried rice, ketchup omelette, and Sspam, the onigiri market has stepped up their game and they are making some of the most unusual Japanese snacks you can find. Now it is easy to find onigiri selections with some crazy western flavors.
In convenience stores it is also common to see maki rolls. These are similar to onigiri in nature but might be more familiar to foreign visitors because they look like simple sushi rolls. These have similar fillings to onigiri including shrimp, tuna, and crab salad. They also have the same complicated packaging to keep the seaweed fresh and crispy.
The Sticky Rice of Your Dreams
What many visitors to Japan might not be expecting after they purchase their ball of childhood nostalgia, is how difficult it can be to open. Usually the traditional style of onigiri, which is wrapped in seaweed, has a special protective packaging designed to keep the crunchy seaweed separated away from the sticky rice. This is similar to how your mom would pack your school lunch sandwiches with the lettuce on the side. You don’t want to open your lunch to find a soggy, inedible mess. Well, the clever onigiri package designers have anticipated this problem and solved it for you.
Now, it’s your job to properly open this package with both the onigiri and seaweed intact and fully wrapped. To be fair this might take a couple tries to perfect, but you can definitely become an onigiri master.
Step one is to pick your flavor. If you want to stay on the safe side, go with the classic salmon or tuna salad flavors. These go great with the rice and are not as intimidating as some. If you want to go completely hard core, give umeboshi, pickled plums, or natto, fermented soy beans, a try. These flavors are not for the faint of heart, so be warned.
So Close, Yet So Far
After you have selected your flavor, take a good look at your onigiri. At the bottom of the package you will find a set of instructions for opening the onigiri. These are in Japanese however so if you want more help, keep reading.
Next you will probably notice that the package has numbered corners from one to three.
Find the number one tab at the top. We will start there. Grab the tab and pull down, and don’t stop pulling! You will pull that tab all the way down and then over and back up again on the backside of the onigiri until it is removed completely.
Okay, easy part done. The trick to doing the next steps correctly is to grab hold of the middle of the onigiri where the seaweed is now showing. It is visible now because you removed the strip of plastic that was tab number one. Hold on to that seaweed, and never let go! And carefully, slowly pull on tab number two.
You will see the plastic separate from the layers of rice and seaweed, removing the barrier between them without disturbing the integrity of the onigiri. Now just do the same thing for tab three. Hold that seaweed in the middle and pull number three carefully.
Wait a second, almost there.
The onigiri is free of plastic but it doesn’t have that stereotypical triangle shape that defines all onigiri. This is definitely a hands-on kind of meal, because now you must fold your seaweed around the onigiri rice into that beautiful triangle shape. Easier than it looks. Gently fold the back corners up and the front corners back.
There’s your delicious snack! Crunchy and sticky, just waiting to be devoured. Enjoy your onigiri while living out a childhood dream.
Dictionary of Common Onigiri Ingredients:
梅 (紀州南高梅): Pickled Plum
焼きしゃけ / 鮭: (Smoked) Salmon
辛子明太子: Spicy Pollack Roe
たらこ: Pollack Roe
シーチキンマヨネーズ / ツナマヨネーズ: Tuna Mayonnaise
おかか: Dried Bonito Flakes
高菜: Pickled Mustard Leaf
昆布: Sea Tangle (a kind of seaweed)
いくら / すじこ: Salmon Roe
鶏 (とり) 五目: Chicken Rice w/ Vegetables
わかめごはん: Red Beans w/ Rice
チャーハン (炒飯): Fried Rice
赤飯: Red Beans w/ Rice
塩むすび: Plain Rice w/ Salt
Opening Your Maki Roll
If you have decided you are an onigiri master now and are wanting to try your hand at eating a maki roll, here are a couple quick tips on how to open their similar packaging. Maki rolls also have the directions for “how to open” on the side. These will show you how to open the package and wrap the roll even if you don’t read Japanese.
There are no numbered steps this time, so definitely follow these instructions carefully to construct the perfect maki. After pulling on the ‘open’ tab, the package falls completely open revealing the sticky rice roll and the still plastic covered seaweed. The key for wrapping a maki roll, is to pull the plastic guarding the seaweed off smoothly.
If you can do, just simply roll up your savory treat and dig in!
Try all kinds of flavors and find your favorite onigiri and maki rolls while you’re in Japan!
Dictionary of Common Maki Ingredients:
納豆: Fermented Soybeans (Natto)
ねぎとろ: Minced Raw Tuna and Green Onion
海老 (エビ) マヨネーズ: Shrimp Mayonnaise
牛焼肉: Grilled Beef
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