The Japanese Food Essentials: ONIGIRI おにぎり (お握り)

How on Earth could I have possibly missed onigiri? Onigiri are deeply entrenched in Japanese food culture. If you’re not familiar with these, they’re rice balls. If you walk into any, and I do mean any, convenience store or grocery store in Japan, you’ll find a section devoted specifically to these. Rice balls are sometimes put in bentos as a part of a balanced, Japanese lunch. They are also a common snack for people on the go, for instance the ever-busy Japanese businessman (or “salaryman” as they may be referred to in Japan).

What’s in an Onigiri?

Many onigiri have some type of filling inside actual rice ball itself. It kind of seems like the sky’s the limit on this one. Umeboshi, tuna, tuna and mayo, salmon, sea cucumber, Soylent Green, and chicken are just some of the different things you might find in an onigiri. Okay, I was kidding about the Soylent Green thing, we can’t eat those in Japan because Soylent Green is made out of _________.** Some onigiri have had things inside that I couldn’t figure out what they were. One time, I just picked up an onigiri in a rush, and I bit into this slimy substance that wasn’t pleasant. I’m pretty open to eating all kinds of foods, but the mysterious substance coupled with the gooeyness was a bit hard to stomach. I tossed that onigiri in a hurry!


What Kinds of Onigiri Shapes Are There?

I’ve seen three major onigiri shapes. First there are the spherical rice balls (which I don’t see so often in stores, but can be homemade). Second, there are the cylindrically-shaped ones that are quite common in grocery and convenience stores. The third type, which is also quite common are the triangular shaped rice balls (or should I say triangular prism? If we’re being technical). Most rice balls are wrapped in seaweed (nori, 海苔). Why? I can’t say for sure, but I really think this is used to keep your onigiri from falling apart, and to keep your hands from getting all messy.

Onigiri Seaweed Wrap Styes

Interestingly enough, I have seen three different styles of seaweed wrapping that are common for Japanese onigiri. There’s the Full Wrap:

The Central Wrap (I’m just creating names based on how they look)

The Underneath Wrap

How much do Onigiri cost

This is the beauty of onigiri. I you have little money to speak of, it’ s cheap and delicious snack. Well it’s delicious depending on your tastes and what kind onigiri you happened to buy. Onigiri generally from cost just over 100 yen (115 yen to 150 yen).

Where Can I Buy Onigiri?

As I’ve mentioned in this article convience and grocery stores are the usual suspects.

How Do Onigiri Taste?

I’m gonna say that depends on your palate. I’ve tried onigiri that other people like and I didn’t like them so much. The best way to find out is by experimenting.

Torigomoku (とりごも/く鳥五目), the chicken mixture onigiri is my absolute favorite What’s your favorite type of onigiri?


Donald Ash

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  • Great post but try this Donald:

    Make a homemade onigiri…put it in the fridge for even just one hour…eat it.

    Ask yourself…how conbini onigiri can stay in the fridge for that long and still be so soft?

    My daughter only eats onigiri from rice ball specialty shops, I suspect b/c less or no preservatives.

    We have offered her store-bought (supermarket ones too) and conbini ones but she says it is yucky.

    Ever since, I have not touched a conbini onigiri.

    Ha ha…sorry, I am a little bit of a food snob.

    Don’t get me wrong…I had Jusco food EVERY SINGLE DAY while working at Aeon…

    Then again my cholesterol levels, weight, blood pressure skyrocketed……as I found out at my ningedoku (kenkou shindai) while in Taiwan.

    So I changed my lifestyle and went the slow food way. :D

    My husband, single bachelor until about 31…used to eat out every day. He was not fat but he had this massive double chin…..from toxins I suspect……from eating out every day.

    Now when we eat out, we can feel our tongues prickle from either MSG, additives, or preservatives.

    Soooooooo, bottom line. Enjoy but…in moderation?

    You are always welcome to stop by for dinner one day. :)


    PS: check this out…shokuhin no uragawa

    and I have written about it before on my blog, here

    • Donald Ash

      Whoa. I’ll definitely have to keep that in mind Vivian. That link is definitely enough to make you say “Hmmm….” Honestly, the homemade ones are better anyway, but my cooking sucks. I’ll have to figure out how to make them. Til then I’ll have to raid your family’s fridge, LOL :)

      Thanks for the post and the cool links!!

      P.S.-I may have to take you and your family up on the dinner invitation one of these days.

      • haha…if you want, we can have a texmex night if you are craving food from bk home. :D or pizza…we have it often

  • Ceci

    Soylent Green is PEOPLE! (Spelled out just like it was said in the movie. :) )

    • Donald Ash


  • devin

    OMG Ceci! That was one scary movie!!!

    • Donald Ash

      Devin, I never saw the movie. I just used to always laugh when Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, and that 1990′s Saturday Night Live Crew used to say “Soylent Green is made out of people!!” and they would do the fake projectile vomit. I’ll have to check it out.

  • Ryan McGuinness

    Hi Donald, have you done an article on dairy products in Japan? I don’t feel like I know enough about the subject and have heard bad things about milk supplements. If not could you do one for me. Thanks :)

  • I too wonder about dairy. American dairy products are pretty upfront about milk being HORMONE and growth etc-free.

    But in Japan…they are a bit late to catch on to stuff.

    MSG, sugarfree stuff, transfats………..all not a big deal in Japan.

    But the one thing good about japan is most things are naturally colored, unlike bk home!!! :D

    Wherever you live, pros and cons… cannot have it all!

  • … I have a secret recipe for onigiri that is kind of westernized, i guess, and very simple. Are you a fan of hamburger and eggs?

    • Donald Ash

      I am a huge fan of hamburger and eggs. I am afraid that if you send me the secret recipe, I’m gonna love and pack on even more pounds. Sounds tasty!

  • Roger Starkey

    Great food article!

    About milk…I read up on it and it seems that the reason it tastes weird is that the disinfection method is different. The methods used in pasteurization are called LTLT and HTST, and involve heating milk to 63C for 30min. or 78C for 15sec. Japan also has the UHT method which subjects the milk to 120-135C for 1-3sec. and this method makes LL(long-life) or ESL(extended long-life) milk that can be stored for 10-14 days. This LL/ESL type of milk is popular in Europe.

  • H

    Oh dear, I think a lot of people missed the point of your post. :( I lived in Japan six years ago and it was completely hit and miss with combini store foods sometimes. Through trial and error like yourself, I found that toridomoku was the best out of combini onigiri and that I loved inari from combinis especially.(Im a kid, I know.)

    If you’re a busy person on the run, unused to cooking with available local ingredients, combinis are great as a quickstop when you’re famished. Especially when you do want to attempt making something from scratch, but have trouble getting through all the kanji, not to mention the 20 million types and brands in Japanese supermarkets of the ingredient that you’re looking for…

    I personally have always found them perfectly satisfactory as a quick snack. Yes, there are perhaps unhealthy by Japanese standards, but combini store foods in Japan are still to date, a lot more preservative/MSG free and actually tasty than the crap we eat in Europe for example.

    Good job on the breakdown of the onigiri itself Donald, don’t think I saw you promoting eternal youth or promoting/ advocating the nutritional value in any way in this post! And that’s the best way to be people, Donald was merely pointing out his own observations on onigiri from a conbini. Yay!

    Ti ti ti!

    Soylent green, hehe

  • Naw I think many people got the gist of the post but just have sidetracked comments, and are chatty. Don is great at getting people chatting about s.thing.

    I just don’t wanna see Don eating that %’&($) all throughout his years in Japan.

    I too thought, no big deal, a few preservatives in the rice balls, sandos at conbini.

    But if you read the book Shokuhin no Uragawa, in Japanese….you’d know that they could get awards for the number of chemicals in one bento alone.

    Over 300 chemicals and that is not including the chemicals in soy sauce and more.

    So yeah I think the onigiri have great flavors and are sooooo convenient.

    But I’ll take a bakery-baked item over conbini one anyday.

    I was 9 kilos heavier a few years ago. At that time I ate supermarket or conbini bento every day after work at Aeon. Correlation? Late night eating or eating that ‘(%()%’()#’()”#)(%. Maybe both.

    :) So Don, like I said, if you are poor and hungry, just come over to our house for a real meal. We always have room for more.

    At least you can be guaranteed of slow food, home-cooked, and no MSG-laden dishes.

    And in a pinch…you can always trust the ingredients in a good chocolate bar?! haha…

  • I love Onigiri and i find this informative post pretty useful. Thanks a lot for posting this!

  • Stygian

    I wish they sold them at convenience stores in the states. :( They don’t sell onigiri, but you can find tons of foods that will kill you slowly! In fact, I’m hard pressed to find anything at a convenience store that isn’t death in a wrapper or can.:D ‘Murica!

    I’m making Chicken/konbu Onigiri tonight, and might substitute my ham sammichs at work for Onigiri. :D Hope they turn out well.

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