Umami Mart Registry

My mom used to pack rice balls for me as an elementary school kid for lunch way before the sushi craze swept the nation and way before there were sightings of Alice Waters toting around onigiri. Having these balls of rice wrapped in "black stuff" was actually a source of shame and anxiety for me everyday in elementary school. When the 12 o'clock bell rang for lunch, most were ecstatic about busting into their PB&J sandwiches and partaking in Fruit-by-the-Foot trading sessions. I would dread the fact that when I unzipped my cloth lunch bag, I would get a waft of salt, rice and sea. Because I was already painfully shy to begin with, my lunch consisting of black balls and dried fish pushed me further into being a recluse.

"Ew! Why are you eating black stuff!" my classmates would shout. Confession: I threw away my onigiri sometimes just to avoid the humiliation. I am very sorry Mom.

Years following my elementary school experience, I didn't have a pleasant impression of onigiri - I had reached my quota early on.

It wasn't until I was in college when I visited Japan and its ubiquitous comibini, that I experienced a wonderful reunion with onigiri. Packaged to perfection, and prices at around ¥120, they were efficient and affordable.

Fast forward to the present.

Fall semester started yesterday for my husband, who is currently taking ESL classes. To save money I suggested I would pack a lunch for him. This was a bit monumental for me. I have never packed a lunch for someone other than myself and today I broke that barrier.

I decided to proudly make onigiri.

Ingredients (for about 8 onigiri)
2 cups fresh steamed rice
1 can tuna
3 tbsp Japanese mayonnaise

1. Make rice


2. Make filling. My filling was canned tuna and kewpie mayonnaise. For one can of tuna, I add about 3 tablespoons of mayonnaise.


3. Prepare a little bowl full of water and sprinkle in about a teaspoon of salt into it. This bowl of water will be used to wet your hands so rice doesn't stick all over them.


4. Once the rice is done steaming, stir it around so that it cools down so that you can handle it without burning the palms of your hands.

5. Rub plenty of salt on your hands. Grab a handful of rice.

6. Mold into a ball.


7. Press into the middle so that you create a little space that will allow you to insert the filling.


8. Put the filling into the hole.


9. Close up the hole the best you can. You might need to pile a little bit of extra rice over the hole to cover it completely.

10. Onigiri are usually molded into a triangle shape. Mold the onigiri into a triangle shape by place the ball in the palm of one hand, while using the other hand forming a "V" with your thumb and other fingers in an L shape.


11. Wrap the onigiri in saran wrap.


12. When eating, wrap the onigiri in some seaweed. You can wrap it up entirely or do what's shown in the picture at the bottom of the page.



Column: Japanify


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    Keizo on

  • So Kamome Diner style.

    I used to throw them away too, as a child.
    Sorry, Hideko. Such are the traumas of the immigration generation.

    But now, I crave onigiri made by mama-san. Rice balls just taste better when other people make them for you.


    kayoko on

  • Uhm. Flashback to Shin-Okubo school breaks and konbini outings.

    Except… aren’t you afraid history’s gonna repeat itself and Washi’s gonna be bullied in school for his black lunchbox eatings? ;-)

    Anders on

  • Did your mama keep the seaweed separately? I like the ones with pre-wrapped and seaweed is almost melted kind too. That’s more like my memory from young days.

    Yamahomo on

  • this post brought tears to my eyes. i’d kill for a yokonigri right now.

    june on

  • Anders:
    “Except… aren’t you afraid history’s gonna repeat itself and Washi’s gonna be bullied in school for his black lunchbox eatings?”
    Yes, I thought about that. But I think over 20 years after I shamefully hid my onigiri, people have become way more understanding – especially about seaweed. Times have changed tremendously.

    Kayoko – You threw them away too?! Somehow, I don’t feel as bad anymore.

    yoko on

  • I threw them away toooooo! Looking back it’s gutting to think such goodness was tossed into a garbage can because of my schoolgirl insecurities. I remember begging my mom to have pb&j’s and cinnamon sugar toast (can you say UNhealthy?). This post has inspired me to call my mom after work and thank her for making me onigiri and all types of lunches! Oh and good luck with school Washi!

    tomo on

  • YES! She totally prewrapped it with seaweed – so there was definitely no crunch. It was like all soft and stuck onto the rice. I think the kombini ones blew me away because they were all packaged so fancy. To me, the kombini onigiri was a different animal from my mom’s onigiri.

    yoko on

  • My little friend Laurel Swift used to come to school with Japanese bentos. Black food was totally the non-rage in 5th grade.

    Bryan on

  • The konbini onigiri, with the fluorescent pink tarako is nasty goodness. I never can unwrap it without making it a total mess.

    Sunrise Mart in NYC has awesome onigiri, packaged mama-san style in little plastic baggies. The shirasu-katsuo one is the best and cheapest snackies in the neighborhood, at $1 each. If you’re lucky, you’ll get one right as they come out— the rice still toasty and warm!

    kayoko on

  • Yoko, is your seaweed yaki-nori, or aji-tsuke-nori? In Kanto, it’s mainly yaki-nori, but in Kansai, we always used aji-tsuke-nori.

    Yamahomo on

  • This post is made so much more awesome by the comments. There are some real sociology lessons in all your shared experiences as issei. I also remember feeling similar immigrant food-based insecurities at school but for Persian food.

    I think the 80s had a lot to with it, especially since there was so much anti-Iranian and Japanese sentiment all around.

    Although I wasn’t fed rice balls as a youth, I did recently throw some away. To be honest I don’t understand rice balls. There’s all this rice that you bight into expecting to get some awesome filling, but even if you take a huge bite I usually don’t get to the filling until the second bite or so.

    Too much rice, too much balls.

    Paystyle on

  • My seaweed is yakinori. Wow, I didn’t know about the ajitsuke-nori thing. My family is all from Kanto so I guess I would have never really come across an onigiri wrapped in ajitsuke nori. I love ajitsuke nori though. It’s definitely like crack – as a kid I would just eat a whole canister of it.

    yoko on

  • On a related note, my mom made me kimbab the first day of school and everyone made fun of me. After that, I told my mom I wanted bagels like the Jewish girls.

    bionicgrrrl on

  • I had a taco boat hot lunch every wednesday… we should have traded.

    ben on

  • Byran – Haha, totally the “non-rage.”

    bionicgrrrl – Cracking up. Did you ever get bagels in your lunch after that?

    Paystyle – I agree about the ratio of the rice to the filling. It’s inevitable that the first bite is just rice. It’s kind of disappointing. But I have a method after the first bite, the second bite doesn’t encompass the whole middle part – or else all the filling would be eaten in that bite. I nibble at the filling while taking bites of the outer (rice) edges of the onigiri. Another remedy is to pack some tsukemono (pickles) on the side so you can nibble on those while you take bites of the onigiri. I’d like to incorporate that more too.

    Oh, and yet another option is gomoku (five condiments: carrots, gobo, hijiki, and two others) onigiri. So you can mix the white rice with a gomoku mixture before you shape them into balls. Like this photo here:

    yoko on

  • If the rice ball was an object of cultural nationalism of one’s home country in contrast with the American PB&J sanwich, then the rice ball becomes a symbol of anti-imperial hegemony, no?

    Ok I can get down with a rice ball in that case, but somebody please put more filling for the love of nori!

    Paystyle on

  • I make my onigiri with whatever I can find in the fridge and pantry. furikake, pickled plum, pickled other vegetables, bonito flake, mix everything together and shape. In this way, every bite has flavor, not just rice.

    Yamahomo on

  • That’s interesting Paystyle. In Japan (especially small town where I grew up), when someone opens a lunch box and find sandwich, instead of rice balls, that made him a modern and popular kid. Everyone looked at them with envy. It’s totally Takashi Murakami’s Little Boy world. Japan’s inferiority to America is being showcased even in the contents of lunch box.

    Yamahomo on

  • Since I felt sort of guilty about throwing the onigiri away I kept them. They would come back home, smashed in my backpack and then I would just throw them under my bed. Child logic is so weird…
    Couple weeks later, one of the Bop posters on the wall by my bed would fall off and I’d have to crawl under the bed to get it.
    Little bits of paper, ponytail holders, hair… and rammed in the corner would be a pile of sweaty, moldy, saran-wrapped rice balls.

    worm on

  • My mum used to (and still does) make onigiri with dried shiso powder (yukari). She’d mix the rice with the shiso first and then put an umeboshi in the middle. That’s still my favourite. Plus she also did that with salted cooked salmon. Yum. Whenever we went on a trip by car, she’d make a whole tupperware full of it and we’d eat it on the way. Brings back memories.

    We made some to take with us on a trip to France for a friend’s wedding. My two Japanese friends and I thought it was the best thing to eat on the train. We’re so Japanese.

    Sakura on

  • Thank you so much for making onigiri. I have a favor to ask you. Make onigiri with white rice instead of brown rice, please. When I was a child, my mom used to make onigiri with brown rice. It looked dirty, so I shamefully hid my onigiri. My friends’ onigiri looked totally shiny white. That’s so beautiful and yummy. Make my school days shiny.

    Washi on

  • is there a variation of ingredients so you can also pack this for your mexican husband…a japanese burrito so to speak.

    mei chen on

  • Worm – Hahahaha, I totally remember. I can’t believe you or Mommy wouldn’t smell them. Did you end up throwing them away in the trashcan in your room?

    Sakura – Dried shiso powder and umeboshi sounds SO good for an onigiri. I definitely want to steal that idea.

    yoko on

  • Man Washi, you’re pushin’ it. Yoko’s never gonna make you another onigiri again!

    Pay- what were your lunches like? What would your mama pack for you?

    kayoko on

  • Our poor moms… they tried! I used to throw my lunch out too! Except mine was more often cha-han (fried rice) or “chicken rice” (with ketchup) featuring all of the previous night’s leftovers, with a fried (semi-runny) egg on top. Sounds good now, but pb&j seemed so much better then. I, too, had a traumatic aversion to cha-han for years after!
    And try trading dried-fish-and-almond snack packs for fruit roll-ups during snack time!!

    Loved this post too— and all the comments with them. I heard moms with preschoolers in Japan these days get totally stressed out making their kids’ bentos ultra-cute and creative (otherwise the kids get teased by the others or even worse, other moms begin to talk about what a lazy ass mom you are!). And loner kids in college are eating bentos in the bathroom (stall) during lunch to avoid being seen eating alone! Bentos tell so many tales… and oh, it’s great that you’re making bentos for your hubby. I love biting into an onigiri made by someone I know— sooo good! I’m sure they’re the highlight of his school day :)

    emi on

  • Washi – Haiga mai is the only rice we have in this house. DEAL with it! Kayoko is right, you are definitely pushing it.

    Mei – Thanks for your comment. I think this is probably one of the ONLY places, if not the only place you will actually get a bomb-ass answer for a Mexican variation on an onigiri. Genius – thanks Yamahomo! Mmm taco rice…

    Emi – Your cha-han lunch does sound good. I remember my dad making fried rice with ketchup. That is very nostalgic. RE: competitive moms and bento in Japan – Yeah I noticed there were so many books at the bookstores in Japan that featured bentos with panda bear shaped nori and other uber-elaborate touches. The sausage octopus seemed passe in these books. That’s so sad about kids eating in bathroom stalls! I don’t know if I could ever bring myself to eat in a public bathroom, even in Japan where they are so clean.

    yoko on


    But god, it’s so depressing how we ALL threw our lunches away. Blame the 80s!

    Mucho amor for our mamas, who took such good care of us. WE LOVE YOU.

    kayoko on

  • Yoko, what are you gonna say about your husband’s request. Healthy rice doesn’t work for him!!

    mei chen, I have an idea. I cook 1lb of ground beef, 1 chopped onion, add 1.5 jar of salsa, then add hoison sauce. Since hoison sauce has cinnamon, it adds sweetness and cinnamon flavor, and surprisingly VERY good. I usually serve them instead of regular chips and salsa. Put them in the center of onigiri. That’s so taco rice meets China.

    I think this is the most comments one post got in the history of Umamimart! Congrats Yoko on such a simple yet brings back all our childhood memory, post.

    Yamahomo on

  • soooo looks good! my son (3yo) takes onigiri for lunch, and still haven’t complained. we’ll see.
    my mom used to let me bring かりんとうfor snack. and it was not the brown thin ones, but the black fatter ones made of black sugar… go figure.

    mika on

  • Damn. I never threw riceballs away – they were too good. But, I grew up where there were a lot of J-A people, so maybe it was different.

    All the anti-Japan racism did to me was make me politically anti-American. I was raised to love the country, flew the flag, and all that, but the racism just put a real anti-American streak in me. Some days, like when I saw the mobs protesting the “ground zero mosque”, it really came out again. F*CK Amerikkka. Destroy all nations. Seriously.

    Other days, I feel pretty pro-America, even a little teary eyed at the idea of the democratic system, like I’m living in a Capra movie.

    I feel really bad for the Muslim and Arab kids out there. I hope they don’t get a burning desire to hate this country.

    jk on

  • Just read this (ok ok I’m a little behind on my umami fix). My mom made me smoked turkey sandwiches for my lunches and I threw those away… I think kids just throw their lunches away no matter what their moms made? We’re about to have an onigiri party to celebrate Kai’s first birthday tomorrow! (if Irwin and I recover from our respective stomach flus) for the insides, planning on spicy tuna (tuna+sriracha+mayo), curry chicken (chicken+curry+mayo), and probably an egg option (scrambled egg with soy sauce + mirin). wish you were here! xxx

    Aya on

  • jk – Yes, I go back and forth about how I feel about the country too. I also go back and forth about how I feel about Japan. Constructive criticism is always relevant and beneficial – but I do refrain from identifying an entire country as being bad or good.

    Dear Mika – Karintou is pretty “questionable”-looking. Ha. Just like a rolled up brownie placed strategically in the corner of a public bathroom.

    Chungy – Thanks for noticing my photo voodoo. I took the part about Alice Waters toting around onigiri from your real-life run-in with Alice.

    yoko on

  • Yoko,
    I’m very impressed with your ability to take photos while making onigiri with TWO HANDS. super wow! I am the world’s laziest onigiri maker, but world’s best onigiri eater. One of my favorite video games when I went to my friend’s house (our house was strictly Nintendo only) to play Alex Kidd in Miracle World and at the end of each level he’d eat his onigiri.

    chungy on

  • Thanks for the recipe! It looks great with the detailed photo instructions! I’m excited to try this out!
    Just a question though, for the canned tuna, what type/brand do you use? The ones in oil/water?

    Jen on

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