Jamaica has meat patties. Argentina has empanadas. India has samosas, and Japan has omusubi. Omusubi Rice Balls are a savory handheld snack. They are enjoyed throughout the day in Japan, as a quick lunch or on the run snack. They are a shelf stable, portable meal that doesn’t require heating or utensils.
If you travel to Japan, you will see them everywhere, from convenience stores, to grocery stores, to shops dedicated exclusively to the rice balls. Plus they are so easy to make that they feature prominently in most lunch boxes. So every kid grows up eating them and loving them. In fact, I think omusubi are more commonly eaten in Japan than any other food item popularized outside of Japan such as sushi, ramen, or gyoza.
Omusubi Rice Balls can be stuffed with an endless variety of fillings. But I always come back to traditional flavors like katsuobushi, salmon, and umeboshi.
Katsuobushi mixed with a little soy sauce and folded into rice is probably one of the earliest food memories most Japanese children have. The savory flavor of the smoked bonito combined with the salty hit of soy sauce is a perfect seasoning for rice.
Grilled salmon is one of the most delicious things to pair with rice and I know that in our house, salmon omusubi is usually the first one to go. Just sprinkle a little salt on your fillet, give it a couple minutes in the broiler, and you’re ready to go.
Umeboshi are preserved salted plums that taste salty, sour, and funky. Traditionally it is made by sun-drying green plums. The dried plums are then packed with salt and shiso leaves and cured. My aunts still make it this way and it lasts forever in the fridge. Not only are they tart and delicious, but they are also considered good for digestion and soothing stomachaches.
If you’re buying umeboshi, look for ones with only plums, salt, and shiso. Pass on those that have sugar, msg, or any other additional flavorings.
As with many traditional foods, Omusubi too have been updated to suit modern tastes. And many flavors feature mayonnaise. The same way that Americans are obsessed with bacon, Japanese people love to put mayonnaise on everything. But I have to admit, Tuna Mayonnaise, as it’s called in Japan, is pretty good inside a rice ball. Plus it’s as simple as can be. Canned tuna is transformed with mayonnaise and a bit of sriracha (I like a kick) making a wonderfully creamy filling. Just make sure to squeeze out as much liquid as possible from the tuna so you don’t end up with a juicy rice ball that’s difficult to mold.
Another way you can make an omusubi is to mix the rice with the seasonings, rather than stuff the rice ball. This is great for people who dread plain rice and can get a mouth full of seasoned rice in each bite. Dry omusubi fillings like furikake or the katsuobushi bonito flakes are mixed directly into the hot rice. These omusubi are particularly good for children because you can make smaller omusubi and not have to worry about stuffing seasonings into a small amount of rice.
Molding Omusubi Rice Balls
I feel the wetter fillings like creamy tuna and pickled plums are better stuffed into the center of the omusubi. It’s just easier to control the moisture and still be able to mold the omusubi. But whichever method you choose, with flavorings either stuffed or mixed in, all of the omusubi get molded into compact shapes. Triangles are the most common, but you can also make little logs, or even little disks. The important thing is to make them as attractive and neat as possible.
Here are a couple of tricks to help you. Always start with hot rice, or as hot as you can manage. The heat makes molding the rice easier and helps you get an attractive shape more quickly. The cooler the rice gets, the more lumpy the rice and the harder it will be to get nice looking balls.
Furthermore, it’s important to have clean damp hands. The moisture keeps the rice from sticking to your hands and with the heat, creates a shiny seal. Finally, make sure you are liberally using salt when you shape the omusubi; we want well seasoned rice.
Omusubi Rice Balls can be mixed and shaped up to four hours ahead. Let them stay at room temperature though, as chilling them would negatively affect the texture of the rice.
When you’re ready to eat the rice balls, wrap them in the nori sheets. This adds great flavor and texture, but also makes for less messy eating. You need the nori to complete the dish. An omusubi without it actually tastes a little sad. I even take an extra sheet of nori for each rice ball, but that’s just me!
Omusubi are a treasured snack in Japan, and I know you will enjoy them as well. When you make them, rate and comment on the recipe below, and show off your finished product by tagging us in your insta pics @funkyasiankitchen.
- 4 cups short grain white rice, steamed (preferably a Japanese or Korean brand)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 5 sheets nori cut in half
Choose 3 of the fillings. Each of these fillings is enough for 2 Omusubi.
(you can also double up if you want to make fewer kinds):
- 2 tablespoons furikake
- 1 pack katsuo bushi with 1 tablespoon soy sauce*
- 2 umeboshi pickled plums
- 3 ounces skinless salmon fillet seasoned with ¼ teaspoon salt
- Creamy Tuna: ½ can of tuna fish, 2 tablespoons mayonnaise (preferably kewpie), 1 tablespoon sriracha
- Some other options you might want to consider:
- 1 piece salted cod roe (known as tarako)
- a couple tablespoons of Japanese pickles
- First cook the rice either in a rice cooker or on the stove.
Prepare the fillings:
- Lightly salt the salmon with a couple dashes. Broil the salmon for 5 minutes on high on the top shelf of the oven. Set aside to cool.
- If you’re making the creamy tuna, squeeze out as much water or oil as possible. Put the tuna in a small bowl and then add the mayonnaise and sriracha. Stir to combine, breaking up the tuna with a fork, until well combined.
- If using umeboshi, take out the seed from the center by plucking it out with fingers and discard. Then set it aside until ready to use.
- If using the katsuobushi, open the packets and pour out into a small bowl and top with soy sauce. Stir to combine. Set aside.
- If using cod roe, you can either use it raw and cut each piece in half or you can broil it. To broil, put it on a baking tray, and broil on medium for 5 mins. about 6 inches from the heating element. Cut it in half and set aside.
Mold Rice Balls:
- The fillings can either be mixed with rice, or stuffed inside the center of the rice balls. It is best to mix ingredients that are dry such as the furikake or the salmon. Wet ingredients such as the creamy tuna or the pickled plum are best stuffed in the center of the rice ball.
- Before starting, set up a water bowl, a salt shaker, and a serving plate. Dip your hands in water and then liberally shake salt over your hands.
- Next scoop 1 cup of steamed rice into your hands and place approximately 2 tablespoons of filling in the center. Push your hands together to enclose the filling. Next squeeze the rice gently between your hands, creating a triangular shape by cupping your dominant hand into a mountain shape while pushing down on your other hand. Then turn the omusubi on another side and continue shaping to create an even triangular shape.
- Place the omusubi on the plate. Rinse your hands in the water bowl and repeat with the rest of the rice balls, rinsing and salting before each omusubi. You should yield 10- 1 cup rice balls (using approximately 5 oz of rice for each).
- Rice balls can either be eaten immediately or kept for up to 4 hours at room temperature. Serve with the nori.
- When ready to eat, put the rice ball in the center of the piece of nori and then fold the corners over the edges.
- If you are making the rice balls to eat later in the day, keep the nori separately in a zip bag to keep it crisp until ready to eat.
*Fresh hot rice works best as it molds easily. Start making the rice balls as soon as you are able to handle the rice.
*Use salt liberally. Unseasoned rice is bland and uninteresting to eat. Make sure you give at least 2 good shakes onto your palm for each rice ball.
*These rice balls are generously sized. You can make smaller rice balls if you prefer.
*If you’ve never made rice balls before, the easiest option is to choose one or two fillings that can be mixed into the rice (mix the rice and flavors separately in two bowls). Then taste the rice first, making sure you have a good balance of rice and flavorings, and it is seasoned well before going ahead and making the balls.
*to keep rice balls gluten free, make sure to choose a gluten free soy sauce
Keywords: omusubi, rice balls, japanese snacks