10 Facts About Onigiri - Japan’s Cute and Tasty Rice Balls!

Onigiri are Japanese rice balls filled with delicious ingredients of all kinds, including salmon, kombu, tuna, and more. Onigiri can be found in convenience stores, supermarkets, and eateries all throughout Japan, and are popular with travelers as a quick pick-me-up while on the move. But besides the taste, how much do you really know about onigiri? Here are 10 onigiri facts sure to double your appreciation for them!

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Onigiri in Japan

If you've ever been to a Japanese convenience store, you've probably seen a bunch of triangle objects in the food area. That's an onigiri. What exactly is it? Here are 10 facts on onigiri, an essential dish in Japanese cooking!

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1. An onigiri (おにぎり) is a rice ball.

The nigiri (握り) in onigiri means to "firmly hold". This comes from the procedure to make the onigiri, where you firmly grasp and hold the rice to form the onigiri shape. Even though the translation of onigiri is "rice ball", the shape of the onigiri is not always a ball. So my definition of a onigiri would be "a handful of rice firmly formed into a handy shape. Dried seaweed wrapped around it is optional." Onigiri can also be called omusubi (おむすび). Musubi (むすび) means to bind together. 

2. Onigiri is widely known and eaten around Japan as a side dish, or a main meal.

Onigiri is placed in every convenience store, mini mart, or supermarket. Especially in TokyoKyoto and Osaka, you will see many variants of onigiriOnigiri is in the school lunch for kids. Some restaurants have onigiri in their menu. If you're familiar with Japanese anime, manga, TV dramas or movies, you may have seen one or two onigiri appearing as a meal. Since onigiri is made out of rice, it can be a side dish or a main meal. You don't need any tools to eat it besides your hands, so it's very convenient.

3. There are many onigiri shapes.

The most standard would be a triangle, as shown in the image above. Shapes comes in sphere and a tawara (俵 - a rice bag, which is shaped like a flattened oval). Since the definition of onigiri is to firmly grasp a handful of rice into a shape, the image below can also be defined as a onigiri.

4. There are many onigiri gu (具).

Onigiri gu (具) is what's inside a onigiri. A very standard gu is umeboshi (梅干し), which is a pickled plum, or tsukudani (佃煮), which is any kind of food boiled in soy sauce. You can put anything you please in an onigiri, so there's many variations to a onigiri. Usually, the gu is placed inside the onigiri. Some put them on top of the onigiri, as shown in the image above, so you can taste the Gu and the rice at your first bite.

5. There are many ways to wrap an onigiri.

As I have stated in the definition of a onigiri in topic 1, wrapping dried seaweed around an onigiri is optional, but highly suggested. Without seaweed, your hands will get sticky with just only rice. Most of the times, the dried seaweed will be wrapped on the bottom of the onigiri, so you can hold the onigiri steadily and munch on it. Some wrap the whole onigiri with dried seaweed, as shown in the image above. The dried seaweed used in the onigiri may be seasoned or not. Some cut the onigiri in shapes for decorative purposes. 


6. The rice used in an onigiri isn't always white rice.

It could be fried rice, white rice mixed with seasonings, sprouted brown rice, or takikomi gohan (炊き込みごはん). Takikomi gohan is white rice cooked with various foods like chicken, peas, mushrooms and so on.

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7. Many conveninence stores sell onigiri.

Seven Eleven, Family Mart, Lawson, and other famous chain store convenience stores or mini marts will most likely sell onigiri in their light meal corners, with sandwiches and salads. Their onigiri is a triangle shape with dried seaweed wrapped all around it. The gu varies. Beyond the the standard umeboshi and tsukudani, they usually always have tuna with mayonnaise, fried tuna, kimchi, deep fried chicken, and so on.

8. Opening a convenience store onigiri may be a bit tricky at first.

Please watch this video on how to open a convenience store onigiri. Convenience store onigiri's dried seaweed does not touch the rice when unopened. It touches the rice for the first time when you take all the wrappings off. This way, you can always enjoy the crunch of dry seaweed!

9. Here's a video on how to make an onigiri at home.

Please watch this video on how to make an onigiri at home. In this video, the chef is making an onigiri with bare hands, which is extremely hot. You can always use saran wrap to protect your hands. 

10. There are stores specializing in onigiri.

It's called Omusubi no Gonbee (おむすびの権兵衛). Their onigiri is slightly larger than convenience store onigiri. The prices are cheap, starting from the basic salt flavored onigiri at 100 yen. Official site in Japanese here.

Thumbnail: Larry Zhou

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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