Welcome to the world of onigiri, the traditional Japanese version of a sandwich. It’s, of course, made by rolling rice up into an extremely portable, hand-held meal.
Onigiri is usually shaped into a triangle, but they can also be found disc-shaped, square-shaped, and spherical. Some creative Japanese parents might add a touch of fun, crafting their onigiri into the shape of an animal or popular Sanrio character.
Rice balls are sold in every city and small town in Japan, most readily available in the convenience stores, where you’ll find an entire rack of shelves featuring an array of different contents. The simplest rice ball will be just rice, and one of the most common kinds contains a pickled plum, called “ume”, in the center. Other more traditional fillings include seaweed, grilled salmon, tuna and mayonnaise, raw tuna and green onions, or fish eggs. But you’ll find that many convenience stores also offer more contemporary varieties. Recently, I’ve tried some rice balls stuffed with bacon and eggs, spam, breaded-and-fried chicken, barbecued pork, and avocado.
And there’s a proper way to open the ones sold at the convenience stores, too. As shown in the photo below, little-numbered tabs show you where and in which order to tear and pull away the packaging. They typically cost 100 to 150 yen, so they make for a very affordable snack when you’re hungry between meals.
It’s incredibly easy to make. Begin with a square of plastic wrap. It should be large enough to wrap around the rice, so the rice doesn’t stick to your hands when you shape your rice ball. The type of rice you use should be a Japanese variety, or one similarly sticky, so it holds together. Basmati, jasmine, and most types of brown rice you can find in the West won’t work very well. Add about half a scoop of rice to the plastic wrap as you cradle it in the palm of your hand. Now is your opportunity to add whatever you want to the center of your rice ball: pickled vegetables, seaweed, fish, pork … Over that, add another half scoop of rice and wrap the plastic over it. Now we shape it!
Traditionally, to achieve the triangular shape, we cup our hands around the rice as if cradling a ball, gently squeezing. Because the space inside your cupped hands is more triangular than round, you will find that after some squeezing and turning, your triangular rice ball will be ready!