Experiments in tinkering and thought

Onigiri – Japanese Rice Balls

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I first encountered these beauties when I was on my way back to Tokyo from Kyoto. I was about to go take the nozomi train and wanted


Onigiri while waiting for the train.

to grab a bite on the go. Most of the convenient store (or supermarket) food over there ranged from decent quality all the way to good quality. I did not really encounter any bad food in Japan. That is not to say that absolutely everything was to my taste, but when it was not, it was not a matter of quality, it was just that I did not like the taste.

As far as I can tell, onigiri simply means rice balls. It is distinguished from sushi in that it is normally made with unseasoned rice (according to wikipedia)… which means I made them wrong, but they were quite good still. I guess that technically makes the recipe below sushi rather than onigiri. I noticed that in China and Japan, in the regions I was at least, whenever they made rice, it was always plain steamed rice. By plain, I mean there was no salt, no fat, nothing, just rice. My North American pallet is accustomed to more taste, so for my compatriots I would recommend the sushi version (with vinegar and sugar in the rice), but these can easily be excluded to make the more traditional version.

That being said, the fun thing about this is that you can put whatever you want in the middle. There are some traditional fillings, but below I will just write those that I used. This is by no means the definitive guide, just a log of what I did, and how it turned out. My love of bite-sized, ball-shaped foods is no secret, and these are no exception.

Onigiri (Sushi) recipe


  • 2 cups (470 ml) of short or medium-grain rice
  • 2 cups (470 ml) water
  • (optional) 2 tbsp (30 ml) rice vinegar
  • (optional) 4 tbsp (60 ml) sugar


Smoked Salmon and grilled sesame:

  • 1 package smoked salmon (250 g, 1/2 lb)
  • 3 tbsp (45 ml) sesame seeds


  • 1 small can tuna
  • 1 tbsp (15 ml) mayonnaise

Pollock and Wasabi:

  • 1/2 cup (120 ml) of pre-cooked pollock (fake crab)
  • 1 tbsp (15 ml) mayonnaise
  • 1/2 tsp (2.5 ml) wasabi flavoured mayonnaise

Egg Salad:

  • 2 hard-boiled eggs
  • 1 tbsp (15 ml) mayonnaise
  • salt and pepper

Nori (seaweed)

There are two types of onigiri that I found: those with the flavouring evenly mixed throughout the rice, or those with a filling only in the middle; I made both types.

The rice is fairly straightforward: rinse the rice until the water runs clear, then put it in a pot with the water (and vinegar and rice), heat on high until the water boils, then turn the heat down (I usually put it on 3) and let it simmer for about 15 minutes. Once that is done, take it off the heat, make sure it is cooked to taste, and mix it up but leave it covered. Leaving it uncovered will accelerate the cooling process, but dry it more than is desirable.

IMG_20151218_064413 (2)The only filling that requires any real preparation is the smoked salmon; this one was made with the flavouring mixed evenly throughout the rice.

  • Take the sesame seeds and put them straight into a pan on medium heat.
  • Leave them on there for 5-8 minutes until they start to darken and roast nicely, stirring them every 30 seconds or so (they tend to stick together from some oil they release).
  • With the pan still on medium heat, put a bit of oil (mix of sesame and peanut oil) to cook the smoked salmon. Since the slices are very thin, it cooks very quickly, and only requires about 10 seconds per side, another optional 10 seconds or so browns it a bit.
  • Flake the cooked salmon, mixed it into the sesame.
  • This mix sat overnight in the fridge in my case, but once it cools a bit, you can just mix it directly into the rice. About 1.5 cups of (cooked) rice mixes nicely with the amounts given here
  • To make the balls, wet your hands, grab some rice, make it into a ball shape and press a bit. You can make them any shape you want, but mine were golf-ball sized balls.

The other fillings were just a mix of the ingredients listed above. The pieces of fish (or egg) need to be small enough to fit into the center, so flaking them into small pieces makes it much easier. Otherwise, just put them in a bowl and mix.

I found that taking the appropriate amount of rice and making a hole in the middle was the easiest way to make the balls with a filling. Once the filling was in it and the rice was closed around it, then it is easy to give it the shape you want.

For the larger ones, You can stick the nori (seaweed) directly onto them; the moisture from the rice will make it stick. Note that if you put it too far ahead of time, the texture will change and become a bit soggy. Sticking it directly on also allows you to make cute or funny drawings with it… or just keep it artsy, to whatever style you want.

Note about the nori: if you have had it for a while, it might start to get a bit soggy, or less crunchy, but you can crunch it up a bit by putting it in a warm oven for a few minutes. If you leave it too long, it may become overly brittle though. I also discovered that it is far easier to cut the nori by pushing straight down on the knife rather than trying to cut it by running the knife along it.

So these were my experiences trying to reproduce some Japanese deliciousness. Let me know if you discover a good filling that I should try and I can post it up for others to see.



Author: Tinker

I am finishing a PhD at Université de Montréal, following a bachelors in Biochemistry as well as a Masters degree in chemistry from McGill. I have many hobbies that are centered around experiments of some sort (either electronics, coding, cooking, construction, plants, acrobatics, etc.). I also have been doing tai chi for the last decade, and intermittently doing kung fu as well.

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