What is Onigiri?
With rice being Japan’s staple food, besides being a mainstay in most Japanese dinner dishes numerous nutritious snacks are also prepared with rice as the main ingredient. Perhaps the best example of rice snacks from Japan are the rice balls that are also known as onigiri. They are available on every street corner in Japan in supermarkets, convenience stores, and also in onigiri specialty stores. Many office workers and school kids bring them in their bento box, lovingly prepared by their spouse or parent. Some are enveloped in seaweed and some are not, some are made with brown rice, they all have different fillings ranging from (pickled) vegetables to meat and fish, and they are all delicious. Let’s learn more about Japan’s favorite snack, onigiri!
Short History of Onigiri
You may be surprised to learn that onigiri has been enjoyed in Japan ever since rice cultivation arrived here from the continent in the Yayoi Period, which started more than 2000 years ago. Rice balls started out with a conical shape and were often used as donations to the gods, which makes sense as rice has always had an important role as a religious offering and as a part of many ceremonies. In the Kamakura Period (13th century), umeboshi rice balls were distributed amongst the Shogunate’s soldiers during a rebellion, and it is said that the energy that these pickled plum onigiri provided was the reason that their side won the fight. In later battles during the Sengoku Period, an era full of social unrest around the 16th century, onigiri was also given out to warriors to give them more stamina. It wasn’t only battlefield food, though, as this is also the period in which onigiri started to spread throughout Japan as a handy portable food.
Onigiri also makes an appearance in many historical Japanese artworks as it shows up in books, folktales, and paintings. During the Edo Period, a much calmer era of peace between the 17th and 19th centuries, onigiri started enjoying widespread popularity as more people started to travel through Japan. This is also the time that people first started wrapping onigiri with seaweed, and they started to experiment with different coatings like miso and grilling the rice balls. The hanami period, when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, was (and still is) a popular time to enjoy onigiri outdoors. When train travel became more widespread in more modern times, ekiben (‘station bento’) started to appear often stuffed with onigiri, and in the 20th century, 7/11 started selling onigiri which is still very popular until today.
Best Fillings for Onigiri
One of the best things about onigiri is that you can stuff them with whatever you have left of yesterday’s dinner or your favorite foods. Here is a list of some of our favorite fillings for onigiri:
- Bonito flakes and cheese: sprinkle some small blocks of cheese and bonito flakes on top for a good savory kick
- Tuna and mayonnaise: canned tuna mixed with mayonnaise is the most popular onigiri flavor in convenience stores
- Sour plum: granted, not everyone is a fan of umeboshi, but if you don’t mind a bit of a sour flavor, this is one of the healthiest ways to enjoy onigiri
- Grilled salmon cream cheese: maybe not the most Japanese-style traditional onigiri filling but this scrumptious combo will get you hooked for sure
- Chicken and vegetables: another popular flavor in Japan’s convenience stores and easy to tailor-make to fit your palate
Easy Japanese Recipes Onigiri
Onigiri are perfect for those moments when you need a snack or for a light lunch. They stay good for the whole day in your bento box so they are great to bring with you when you’re on the go. Rice balls provide good nutrition that lasts you for a while, so you can fill yourself up without getting bloated. Onigiri gives you a boost of proteins, carbs, antioxidants, and fibers, especially if you prepare them with seaweed. Check out these amazingly easy and healthy onigiri recipes!