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My husband works for a large Japanese automaker. As you might expect, several of his coworkers are from Japan, and sometimes (well, pre-2020) the company would send hubby and his colleagues on work trips to the Land of the Rising Sun. He has enjoyed learning some basic Japanese terms for work, and I’ve enjoyed learning to make a few Japanese dishes in our home – both for entertaining guests, and just for fun.
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My favorite, by far, is onigiri. Pronounced oh-nee-geer-ee, these delightful balls of sushi-grade white rice are usually filled with a pocket of something delightful – be it salmon, shrimp, tuna, or even pickled plum. These balls of rice come in a variety of shapes (as you may have noticed, if you’ve ever played the game Sushi Go), and are usually wrapped in nori (dried seaweed) to prevent the rice from making your hands sticky. If you travel to Japan, make sure to stop at your local convenience store and check out the wide variety of onigiri flavors available. You can find everything from basic tuna mayo to chicken curry to even Korean barbeque beef. The possibilities are endless, and you’ll have a grand time sampling all of the different options.
Unlike sushi, which gets a large portion of its flavor from added vinegar, the rice in onigiri is just plain rice. The added flavor comes from salt, which you add during the shaping process, and from whatever filling you choose to use. Today, I’ll be showing you how to make the most popular flavor – tuna mayo.
Note: this recipe is a Midwestern attempt at Japanese food. It is not the most authentic – partly because I want this to feel accessible, and mostly because I’m not Japanese. Chopstick Chronicles and Just One Cookbook are two Japanese cooks who offer truly authentic recipes, as well as information about the deeper details involved in making onigiri. They were very helpful for me, and you should absolutely consult (and support) a Japanese source if you want to make truly authentic Japanese food!
The primary ingredients for this onigiri are fairly basic – just rice and salt. For the rice, we are using sushi-grade white rice. If you live anywhere near an Asian grocery store, they will have a wide selection for you to choose from, but I’ve found that many large natural food stores will also carry it.
You can make any of a wide variety of fillings, but today we’ll be talking about the most popular variety – tuna mayo. The best mayonnaise you can use for this recipe would be Japanese mayonnaise (Kewpie brand is available at many Asian grocers). If you don’t have a local Asian grocery store, or if you forgot to buy a bottle when you purchased your sushi rice, you can make a passable gaijin alternative by combining standard American mayonnaise with sesame oil and rice vinegar, as is described below.
You also will need nori – dried seaweed – to wrap your onigiri. Just like with our rice, you want to look for nori labeled “sushi nori”. It will have been roasted in a manner that makes it pliable enough to bend around your onigiri without the seaweed breaking. I was deeply inauthentic in the pictures you see, and used Kirkland brand roasted seaweed snacks. Did this work in a pinch? Yes. Was it ideal or authentic? No, not at all.
Roasted sheets of seaweed snacks will work in a pinch, but they are too small to provide an ideal wrap, they are more salty than you want your nori to be, and they are slightly too crunchy compared to sushi nori. Do yourself a favor and buy the authentic version if you can.
The final (technically optional) ingredient is one of my very favorite flavorings – furikake. You can find this seasoning mixture at Trader Joe’s (or, obviously, your local Japanese grocery). It usually contains sesame seeds, tiny bits of roasted seaweed, and salt, and it imparts such a wonderful umami flavor to whatever you put it on.
Alright, let’s get down to business and prepare these onigiri!
Start by cooking your rice per the package instructions. Allow it to cool briefly; you want it to be warm, but not piping hot. While your rice is cooling, combine 1 can of albacore tuna with your mayonnaise, rice vinegar, and sesame oil. For a bit of extra flavor, I like to add a sprinkling of furikake. (This is less authentic but it is supremely delicious.) Stir this until the mixture is completely combined, resembling tuna salad.
Now that your filling and rice are both ready, it’s time to assemble. Start by washing your hands thoroughly. Once they are clean, make sure they are still damp. This is crucial to (1) shape your onigiri, and (2) avoid all of the rice sticking to your hands.
Next, cover your hand with salt. This will add flavor to your onigiri, and you will definitely be sad if you forget this step.
Place a roughly quarter-cup sized ball of rice in your salted hand and flatten it out. Place roughly half a tablespoon of tuna mayo filling in the center of the rice.
Mold the rice around the filling, covering it completely, and roll it into a ball. The salt from your hand will cover the outside of the ball. Once you are sure the filling is at the center of the ball, use your hands (or a mold, if you have one) to form the onigiri into your desired shape. Here, we’re making our onigiri into the fairly traditional triangular prism (think the shape of a chunk of a Toblerone candy).
Wrap your shaped onigiri with a piece of nori and garnish with furikake, if desired.
The Teacup Method
Perhaps you’re not keen on the idea of your hands getting sticky, or perhaps your hands aren’t quite as dexterous as they used to be. Whether it’s a sensory sensitivity, a disability, or plain old-fashioned simplicity, don’t worry – there’s an easier way. Enter the teacup method of onigiri. Makiko Ito at Just Hungry introduced me to this fantastic hack, which is perfect for onigiri novices.
Make sure you use a teacup or very small bowl, not a coffee mug – unless you want your onigiri to absolutely enormous.
Cover a small teacup with plastic wrap, leaving quite a bit of extra along the sides. Dust the plastic liberally with salt. Loosely fill the lined cup with warm sushi rice.
Make a small hole in the top of the rice and stuff it with the tuna mayo filling. Cover the filing with the surrounding rice, making sure the filling is in the center of your rice ball.
Wrap the plastic tightly around your rice and use your hands to form it into a ball. Use your hands or a mold to form the wrapped rice into your preferred shape.
Unwrap the shaped onigiri and garnish as desired, or place it in the refrigerator for later enjoyment. Keep in mind: onigiri should be eaten within 1 day of your making them. Old rice – especially when left at room temperature – tends to harbor some nasty bacteria. Any onigiri you don’t eat in the first sitting should be wrapped in plastic or a damp towel to prevent them from drying out, and kept in the refrigerator.
Congratulations! You made onigiri! It will take some trial and error to get them right, and that’s okay. Shaping and sealing them can be tricky, and like any dumpling, it takes time and finesse to understand the best filling-to-rice ratio. With a little practice, you’ll be making these quickly in no time.
How did your onigiri turn out? Did you try any creative shapes? Feel free to leave a message in the comments below, or tag @WhiskAverseBaking on social media.
Onigiri (Filled Rice Balls)
Salty, savory, and oh-so-cute, this traditional Japanese dish makes a great appetizer or snack.
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Prep Time 10 mins
Cook Time 30 mins
Assembly time 20 mins
Total Time 1 hr 30 mins
Course Appetizer, Snack
Servings 12 onigiri
- 3 cups sushi-grade white rice uncooked
- 3 cups water
Tuna mayo filling
- 1 7 oz. can solid albacore tuna packed in water
- 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 package nori (roasted seaweed) – sushi grade
- Furikake optional, to taste
Prepare rice using your preferred method (stovetop, rice cooker, or Instant Pot) and briefly allow to cool.
While the rice is cooking, combine mayonnaise, rice vinegar, and sesame oil in a small bowl. Add furikake to taste, if desired. Stir until fish has flaked and ingredients are completely combined. Store in the refrigerator until ready to use.
While rice is still warm (but not hot), dampen one clean hand and cover it with salt.
Place roughly 1/4 cup of rice in your hand.
Place approximately 2 teaspoons of tuna mayo filling at the center of the rice.
Wrap rice around the filling to form a ball.
Use other hand (or a mold) to shape the onigiri into your preferred shape.
If not eating them immediately, wrap onigiri in plastic (or in a damp dishcloth) and place in the refrigerator. Do not eat if stored for longer than 48 hours.
Immediately prior to serving, wrap shaped onigiri with nori and garnish with furikake, if desired.
- If you have access to an Asian grocery store, you can substitute the mayonnaise, rice vinegar, and sesame oil with traditional Japanese or Kewpie brand mayonnaise.
- The number of servings may vary greatly, depending on the size of your hands or mold used to shape the onigiri into its final form.
Keyword onigiri, rice