The Japanese rice ball is a simple staple but there are a few techniques that can help making one easy and delicious. In addition, there are many appetizing variations to consider, but for the beginner, it’s best to start at the beginning.
The Japanese rice ball is called onigiri (which differs from nigiri sushi) or musubi (or omusubi to be more respectful). The first name refers to the way it is made by pressing in the hand (“nigiru” means grip) while the latter to the way it is wrapped in a strip of nori seaweed (“musubu” means to tie). Musubi is a portable food so it often is a picnic, lunch or travel food.
Even though Americans call them rice balls, musubi is not shaped into spherical balls. Once, round rice balls were served only at funerals and to do make them this way at any other time was considered bad luck. However, this superstition is falling out of practice as you can find a lot of onigiri varieties in Japan in different shapes, including the occasional round.
Still omusubi usually is shaped into triangles. You don’t need a mold for this standard shape, although there are molds to make it easier. In fact, there are cute molds of all types to make cute rice “balls” for bento lunches. I have molds that are shaped like fish, hearts, flowers, bears and squares. But the usual shape I make is the traditional triangle because it makes a bigger musubi that I can fill with a tart umeboshi (small red pickled plum).
It might seem like a no-brainer to make a rice ball, but trust me, I’ve made plenty substandard musubi to know that there are important tips to consider:
1. Use only short-grain Japanese rice. Other varieties lack the stickiness necessary for the rice to hold into shape.
2. Cook the rice properly and let it steam.
3. Salt the rice well while fluffing or it will lack flavor. You also can sprinkle some extra salt on your damp hands as you form the rice.
4. Wet your hands with water to prevent the rice from sticking.
5. Rinse a small chawan or rice bowl with water to wet it.
6. Mold the rice while it is still hot (after it steams a little) and press firmly.
7. If possible, wrap the nori around the rice ball just before serving to keep it crisp.
Japanese Rice Balls or Onigiri/Musubi
3 cups short grain Japanese rice, rinsed
3 cups water
2 tsp. salt
nori sheets cut into 7 strips about 2 ½ inches x 7 inches
filling: small umeboshi plums
Using a standard Japanese rice cooker, place 3 cups of rinsed rice grains with 3 cups of clean water. Cover the pot and let this site for at least one hour but no more than three. Turn on the cooker. After the cooker indicates that the rice is done, allow it to steam for 10-15 minutes. Do not open the lid during this time.
Wet a large mixing bowl with water and drain it. Place the hot rice into this bowl. Sprinkle the salt over the rice and carefully, using a wet rice paddle or shamoji, fluff and toss the rice. Be careful not to break the grains.
Wet a small rice bowl and place about ¾ cup of rice into the dish. Toss the dish up and down slightly to pack the rice against the bowl sides. The rice should turn and begin to form a round shape. If you are filling the musubi with something like a small red umeboshi pickled plum, push it into the center of the rice at this time. Moisten your hands with water. My aunt sprinkles a little salt on her damp hands before she forms the rice; my salt-conscious mother does not. Dump the rice into one hand. Press the rice with both hands as though you are forming a snowball, only press the fingers of both hands extra tight to flatten those sides to form the rice into a triangle. Reposition the rice triangle in your hands to flatten all the sides of the rice, being sure to form a triangle. Press firmly but don’t be ridiculous about it and smash it too much!
*Note: Many chefs today use a piece of plastic wrap, or even a small plastic zip-top baggie, to handle the hot rice. The rice won't stick to it and it will keep hands free from having to handle the sticky rice directly. Place about 1/2 cup of hot rice in the center of some plastic wrap, bring up the sides and press the packet into a triangle shape. Unwrap and continue...
Wrap a nori strip around the triangle. (I usually cut a nori sheet into thirds, width-wise.)There are two ways to wrap it. Either you can wrap it around the perimeter of the triangle or your can bring up the nori around the larger flat front and back sides of the triangle which is the way it is usually served and the way I prefer it.
The longer the nori stays on the hot rice, the softer it will get. One can’t help that if you are making it ahead of time and need to take it to a picnic or lunch. But, if you can, wrap it just before you serve it so the nori will retain its crispness. I love it when I buy onigiri and the nori is wrapped separately, but most of the time, it isn’t.
The variations of musubi flavors can be creative and delicious. Poke other fillings into the center. I like to put in other pickled vegetables like takuan. Sometimes, bits of cooked fish are tucked inside.You can mix in seasonings into the hot cooked rice before you press it into shape. Furikake, or seasoned nori flakes with toasted sesame seeds, come in different flavors and you can sprinkle a good amount into the hot rice. I made my husband his own version called Happy Hubby Sweet Bacon Musubi (click on the link!)
Mini Musubi Tray
Using a musubi mold with small decorative shapes, make about a dozen mini-musubi. Then, garnish each one differently using a variety of seasonings such as sliced takuan, powdered green tea (matcha), furikake, shizo leaves, fresh vegetables, pickled ginger, cooked shrimp or clams and dried shrimp/ebi powder. Serve with tea for a light luncheon or for appetizers.