The staple food for Japanese people is rice and onigiri is a food that was thought of through the wisdom of Japanese people long ago who did not waste a single grain of that precious rice. Because onigiri is rice made into a ball around flavored filling and molded into a shape like a triangle or a circle, it is called omusubi or onigiri. The origin for the “nigiri” in “onigiri” comes from the Japanese verb “nigiru,” which means to mold rice.
The varieties of rice that Japanese eat contains a lot of moisture and features a chewy and soft texture so it is easy to mold and suitable for rice balls. In most cases, one onigiri is about the size of a baseball.
The history of onigiri
It is said that Japanese people in times when there was no refrigeration, mixed rice with salty and sour ingredients for the first onigiri to improve its preservation. Because it is easy to make and convenient for saving and carrying, samurai could eat them between battles and farmers could eat them while they were working.
Rice balls are used as preserved, portable meals even in the present age and they are a lunchbox staple and a main product at convenience stores.
Many varieties of onigiri fillings
Onigiri fillings vary depending on the region but common fillings are things like pickled plums, salmon, okaka (dried bonito flakes with soy sauce) and mentaiko (salted pollack roe). As regional features, a famous one is Nagoya’s "Ten Musu," made with a whole tempura shrimp. Also, in Okinawa, “Pork Omusubi” made with spam is often eaten.
Additionally, not only the filling but also difference in the outside is interesting, too. It is common for onigiri to be rice wrapped in nori (seaweed) but sometimes they are wrapped in other things like leafy vegetables such as nozawa na and takana or very thinly shaved kelp, or even seasoned grilled meat. “Yaki onigiri,” which are onigiri brushed with miso or soy sauce and grilled over an open flame, can also be called a variation.
Besides that, recently rice sandwiches made with filling between rice and nori, and onigiri that pack many kinds of fillings into one rice ball have also come out.
Where can you eat onigiri?
In Japan, while you can of course get them at convenience stores and Japanese style bars, there are also cafes and special onigiri shops where you can enjoy carefully chosen rice and fillings. Would you like to buy your favorite onigiri to eat at a park at the destination of your trip to make good memories? We hope everyone will look for a favorite "onigiri." It is a good idea to ask the Japanese people you meet for recommendations.