This post is part of Our Growing Edge, a monthly blogging event to encourage us to try new food related things. Louise from Crumbs and Corkscrews is the host for this month’s event. If you have a blog and you are eating or cooking something new this month, click below to join.
Yesterday, I re-watched the movie Spirited Away at Silo Cinema. Silo Cinema is a free, weekly open-air-cinema in downtown Auckland at Silo Park. Right on the water’s edge looking across the harbour bridge, with the moon in view, movies are projected onto a big unused silo. Aucklanders bring blankets, snacks, tipple, friends or family for a cheap night out. Magic.
I’m a huge fan of Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli (pronounced jee-blee or ji-bu-ri). His animations are rich in imagination, characters, colour and often sumptuous food scenes. Watching Spirited Away reminded me once again why I put onigiri on my foodie bucket list. Onigiri or rice balls are portable, cheap, filling and can be thought of as Japanese soul food. Unlike sushi, which are made by highly trained sushi chefs, rice balls are made by Japanese mothers and easy for you to make at home. They taste very comforting and there is something lovely about holding a ball of food in your hands. In one of the more modest food scenes in Spirited Away, Chiriro, the protagonist is devastated by recent events. Haku gives her a rice ball to cheer her up. His onigiri are plain modest triangles. Chiriro accepts the rice ball but starts crying immediately.
Before I attempted my first onigiri, I read Maki from Just Hungry’s “Easier way to make Japanese rice balls” and you should too. Traditionally, wetted hands form onigiri, but as hot rice must be used, Just Hungry’s method saves your poor hands from being scalded pink by hot rice.
Umeboshi or pickled plums are the traditional filling for onigiri so I picked up a packet at my local Japan store.
I’d never eaten umeboshi before so I popped one into my mouth for research purposes. Cripes!!! Eye wateringly salty and sour with a slight fragrance of flower petals and house paint. These babies are not intended to be eaten “neat”. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Umeboshi have a pit in the middle which needs to be removed if you’re using them as onigiri filling. These pickled plums help preserve the rice.
Onigiri uses sushi rice or what is called medium grain rice. Never use basmati, jasmine or long grain rice. In a pinch, you could use risotto rice.
Onigiri is different from sushi as it does not include vinegar, only light salt. The vinegar in sushi helps to preserve raw ingredients. It is not OK to put raw fish in onigiri. The salt in this recipe flavours and helps to preserve the rice which is stored and eaten at room temperature.
For my first attempt at onigiri, I decided to do two kinds of filling: Traditional and Sexy. Traditional being umeboshi and Sexy being hot smoked salmon, mayo and wasabi.
Traditional and Sexy Onigiri
Adapted from Just Hungry’s “Easier way to make Japanese rice balls”
Makes 8 rice balls
- 2 cups uncooked sushi rice (3 rice cups)
- A strip of Nori (dried seaweed)
- Black toasted sesame seeds
Filling for each onigiri:
- Traditional: 1 umeboshi (pickled plum), pit removed
- Sexy: a teaspoon size of hot smoked salmon, a smear of mayo, a dot of wasabi
- Plastic wrap
- A small bowl or teacup that holds 2/3 cup
- Sharp scissors (for nori decorations)
- Rinse and cook rice according to packet instructions (I used a rice cooker).
- Line a small bowl with plastic wrap, ensuring plenty of plastic wrap overhangs all edges. Flick a little water onto the plastic wrap, followed by a sprinkling of salt.
- Scoop hot rice into the bowl – about 2/3 full. Do not pack it in, loosely full is good. Using your finger or the end of a utensil, make a small hole into the rice (not all the way to the bottom) and fill it with your filling. Top with 1/3 hot rice until bowl is full.
- Gather up the the ends of the plastic wrap, twist and gently squeeze pushing out all the air and form a ball. Take your time. The salt presses into the surface and the rice grains stick together to form a firm ball that will not fall apart when you bite into it.
- Using a flat and L-shaped cupped hand, squeeze the ball into a fat triangle shape. Press front and back onto a flat surface and set aside.
- Repeat with the remaining rice and filling.
- Before eating, decorate with nori strips and/or black sesame seeds. Re-wrap onigiri in plastic wrap or serve on a platter.
- Keep at room temperature, eat same day.
While I preferred the hot smoked salmon onigiri to the umeboshi onigiri, they were both delicious.
I ate all 8 rice balls within a day. I didn’t intend for that to happen and I don’t think that it is recommended.
Tips from a noobie
- Keep rice covered so that it stays warm. The hotter the rice, the better the rice will press together.
- A salt shaker and a spray bottle will make the water/salt part easier. Or even better, a water and salt solution mixed in a spray bottle. Genius.
- If you are doing more than one kind of filling, try different shaped onigiri (ball, square, tube, triangle) or different designs so they are easy to tell apart.
- Nori goes soft very quickly. Make sure your hands, scissors and surface are perfectly dry.
Other fillings I’d like to try
- Teriyaki unagi (eel)
- Salted egg
- Cream cheese and pineapple
- New: Crumbed chicken nuggets
Update: A few days later, I made onigiri again, this time with crumbed chicken nuggets: Pan fry chicken nuggets, cut in half, add a drop of soy sauce, a generous smear of mayo/wasabi and press into onigiri. Tastes kind of like chicken katsu :)