Onigiri is a ball of Japanese rice shaped into a ball, a triangle, or cylindrical, and wrapped in a sheet of dried seaweed (nori). The earliest record of onigiri being eaten in Japan goes as far back as the 11th Century. The circular shape was to allow them to be stacked on a plate, and easy to hold. Old records show that during the 17th century samurai used to wrap their onigiri in bamboo to take on their journeys.
It’s common to eat onigiri with a bit of salt, or filling the center with ingredients like salted salmon, umeboshi (pickled Japanese plum), mentaiko (spicy pollock roe), and konbu seaweed. They can also be grilled with a glaze of soy sauce or miso, known as yaki onigiri (grilled rice ball), which adds a delicious savoury-sweet flavour, and a crispy texture on the outside, leaving the rice inside fluffy. It is eaten across Japan as a meal, often as lunch, for picnics, or as a snack. They’re easily available in convenient stores and supermarkets to take on the go; and the dried seaweed allows you to hold it without getting sticky fingers!
Flavourings and fillings vary across Japan, and due to the versatility of white rice there are so many flavours to choose from. Popular fillings in convenience store are tuna and mayonnaise, shrimp tempura, ikura (salmon roe marinated in soy sauce), and okaka (bonito flakes with soy sauce). I used take several onigiri in my lunchbox for school! My favourite filling was always salted salmon. The English equivalent of rice balls would be a sandwich; both sandwiches and onigiri come in a variety of flavours, meaning that there’s something for everyone!