While not as well known as its comparable counterpart sushi (which had its origins in being a transportable food), onigiri is probably one of my favorite “to-go” foods. When I lived in Japan, I was taught how to make onigiri but was quite terrible with forming it (which is really the main part)- I couldn’t seem to get the triangle shape down! Honestly, it really isn’t that hard but I think I just wasn’t particularly coordinated in the kitchen yet. While in Japan you can find onigiri in most supermarkets and convenience stores, it’s really a simple comfort food. At its most simplified, it’s compacted salted rice with or without some sort of filling and nori (an edible seaweed) wrapped around it. Many fillings are typically fish or meat-based, I’ve been making vegetarian onigiri at home.
While I’ve occasionally bought it from Asian markets in the states, I never really attempted to make it again until recently. On my birthday back in April I received a kayak from my dad and thus have been kayaking more. I’ve started making onigiri as a simple compact snack (that fits easily in a kayak) that’s full of energy, doesn’t require utensils and doesn’t spoil easily.
Returning to the action of cupping the warm rice in my hands, carefully pressing in the filling in the center with my thumb before folding it close and pressing it together in a triangle, rotating to compress each side evenly has been very nostalgic. It used to be awkward and frustrating but somehow with the passage of time it’s become something familiar. It seems strange- narcissistic even- that a motion I haven’t done in almost ten years should feel “familiar” to me. I wonder if it’s the transition between doing and becoming one with ideas and memories of others. Friends from Japan and friends from here in the states, near and far, connected by simple motions and gestures within the kitchen. A rice paddle scooping out warm, freshly cooked sticky rice- a slight puff of steam with it and one that I often forget about until it hits my face- to then be carefully shaped by hand is an action done so often in daily life and by so many. My Okaa-san did it for me when I was in Japan, as did my friend and co-worker when she lived in New York with her her two teenage boys. My friend in Heartsdale does it when she makes inarizushi for her young daughter and son. It is a simple gesture for a simple food. I maintain and will continue to maintain however, that the simplest dishes are almost always the most important and the ones filled most with love and memory.
This onigiri is different from the ones I used to make in Japan, which were typically filled with some sort of salmon (which is still a favorite of mine) filling. I wanted to focus on the season and creating something related to what’s available now. Onigiri is not an exact science when it comes to creation- as stated before, it’s simply salted rice with some sort of filling and nori. Use enough rice that it feels comfortable within your hand and don’t add too much filling that you can’t reseal it. You will likely end up with extra filling.
Shredded Carrot Ginger Onigiri
4 Cups (Not compacted) of Cooked Sticky Rice*
1 TBSP of Rice Vinegar
1 tsp Soy Sauce
1 tsp Mirin
2 Small Grated Carrots (40g)
½ tsp Grated Ginger
Crushed Sesame Seed, optional
Dried Nori, optional
Start with the filling.
Combine the grated carrots, ginger, rice vinegar, soy sauce and mirin in a small bowl. Let it sit for at least 10-15 minutes before adding to the onigiri.
When you are ready and the rice is cool enough to handle, wet your hands with water and keep the salt on hand. Salt your palms generously and scoop out 2/3 cup of rice into your hands. Flatten it out slightly and place a dent in the middle. Grab a spoonful of the carrot filling (approximately a teaspoon) and place it in the dent. With your hands, carefully press the rice together, sealing up the section with the filling. Compressing the rice together, you want one hand relatively flat while the other is cupped to form a point on the triangle, rotating as you go until all sides are firm and compact. Repeat with the remaining rice, remembering to wet your hands and salt them as needed.
When you have finished forming, if you want to add the sesame and nori, cut the nori into rectangles appropriate for the size of your onigiri to cover the base and part way up the sides. Sprinkle some sesame on the surfaces of the onirigi (skipping the bottom). Place the nori on the onigiri and compress into it so that it sticks and stays. Repeat with remaining rice and filling.
*When it comes to cooked sticky rice, I am lazy and simply use my rice cooker with equal parts Japanese rice to water (jasmine, basmati or other long grain rice varieties won’t work). If you do not have a rice cooker and want to make it on the stovetop, I would recommend checking out some instructions here.