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Japonica rice, the primary Asian grain most popular in Japan and Korea, has reached the mainstream with the widespread popularity of sushi. And with the advanced technology built into today’s rice cookers, rice dishes have gone way beyond sushi. Our menu this month shows you how to make a quintessential rice snack that used to be the staple of hungry travelers during the feudal era of Japan, the onigiri rice ball.
Onigiri, also known as omusubi depending on the region of Japan you’re from, is the rice version of a Western sandwich. It is usually made from the sticky short grain type of rice so that it clumps together into snack-sized balls, triangles or oblongs. Our recipes from Zojirushi have a little twist on the traditional types of onigiri—we hope you enjoy them!
A name coined for the way you don’t have to mold the rice with your hands, onigirazu is made by folding over the nori (seaweed) sheet over the rice like origami. It’s so easy to make this style of onigiri, it’s no wonder the onigirazu is so popular today.
See this recipe
We’ve taken the traditional grilled rice ball and flavored it with 2 types of flavors—cheese and kimchi. It goes without saying that grilled cheese is yummy, but did you know that toasted kimchi brings out some amazing flavors?
See this recipe
It’s not so far fetched that an Italian style onigiri would sound so good—think about risotto; the connection is already there. Our rice ball is wrapped in prosciutto—the thinly sliced cured ham makes an excellent companion for Japanese rice.
See this recipe
The honorable rice ball gets trendy. Despite the cute name, its wonderful portability, the unlimited variety potential and massive popularity for the bento enthusiast, the humble onigiri, aka omusubi or rice ball, has traditional roots that date back to the 1100s during the shogunate era of Japan. Once the favorite snack of the traveling samurai, the rice ball is now a favorite of the on-the-go everyday consumer.
At convenience stores in Japan, the most popular food items are the take home bento lunches and the many varieties of packaged onigiri. Priced right at less than 150 yen ($1.35) each, rice balls stuffed with grilled fish and meats, tuna & mayo, umeboshi (pickled plum), shrimp tempura, and many, many more—sell more than 2.5 billion units* a year. And that’s just at the Seven-Eleven® stores, the nation’s largest chain. There are at least 5 major convenience store franchises all across the country that sell the triangle shaped snacks.
And just to get some facts straight:
Onigiri can be made with more than just plain white rice—brown rice and mixed flavored rice can also be used. There is also a festive type made with sekihan, a pink, glutinous rice mixed with red adzuki beans.
Although Japanese sticky rice is also referred to as “sushi rice” by many Westerners, the vinegar-flavored rice is not typically used to make onigiri.
In Japan, onigiri is eaten as a snack, as a school or office lunch, or even as a main dish/dinner.
Onigiri aren’t always in the shape of triangles, although this seems to be the traditionally classic shape. There are also spheres, oblongs and kid-friendly shapes like hearts and stars made with molds.
Nori (dried seaweed sheets) is used to either partially or totally wrap the rice balls and gives you a place to hold the sticky rice; but this innovation wasn’t possible until the 1600s, when flat nori processing was introduced. Moms these days cut and shape the nori into cartoon eyes, eyebrows, mouths and noses to create animated characters out of their onigiri for their kid’s lunches.
The onigirazu featured this month is the most modern twist on the ancient rice ball, and in many ways symoblizes how busy we are these days. With less time to prepare and cook for ourselves, the “layer and fold” method of making a rice ball is quicker than shaping it with your hands. The word “onigiri” literally means “to grasp”; the slang derivative “onigirazu” is a made-up word which implies “grasping not needed”.
*Source: Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry Commercial sales statistics
Cooking Japanese rice requires some basic steps for it to come out nice and fluffy and delicious. Just follow these hints and you'll be making 5-Star Rice every time!
Rice needs to be kept fresh, just like any other produce. Exposure to air will cause oxidation and your rice can get stale. Store in airtight containers or sealed bags after purchase.
Rice will lose flavor over time. Don't buy more than you can consume in a month.   To keep rice fresh, store in an airtight container or sealed bag.   Avoid warm temperatures and humidity by storing rice in your refrigerator.
Measuring is often overlooked when cooking rice. Small differences in too much or too little can result in the rice being too hard or too soft. Get an accurate amount by leveling off the cup with a straight kitchen tool.
Fill a heaping cup of rice using the measuring cup.   Use a straight tool like the back of a knife to level off.
Rice is actually delicate and could crumble. Hand wash gently and quickly--it will make a difference in taste.
After washing, gently swirl the water so the rice lays evenly in the cooking pan before placing it in the cooker.   A major key to tasty rice is the purity of the water it absorbs during the rinsing and cooking process. Using filtered or mineral water can help to enhance the flavor of cooked rice.
A bottom plate heating element warms the inner pan. Some models also heat from above. Microchip judges the amount of rice, then surrounds the pan with controlled heat. Induction heating uses the cooking pan as a conductor, generating higher temperatures which result in fluffier rice. Combination of pressure and high heat enhances flavor and improves the texture of the rice.
After the rice has cooked, turn it over with a paddle or wide spatula to reduce excess clumping and allow the rice to fluff. Insert paddle along the edges and turn over, working in quarters until all the rice has loosened.  
  Keeping all the parts clean will help your cooker perform its best.  
  Clean after every use.   Detach and wash.   Detach and wash.   Wipe clean, as rice or other matter may prevent even heating.  
Please refer to your instruction manual for further details.
  Nigiri Sushi   Maki Sushi
(Sushi Roll)
  Temaki Sushi   Tuna & Avocado Tower  
  Tricolor Soboro Bowl   Ten-Don
(Tempura Bowl)
(Egg Bowl)
  Salmon Chazuke
(Green Tea Rice Soup)
  Garlic Flavored
Beef Yakimeshi,
Stir-Fried Rice
  Shrimp Yakimeshi,
Stir-Fried Rice
  Kimchi Fried Rice   Spicy Curry Flavored
Vegetable Yakimeshi,
Stir-Fried Rice
Due to many requests from our readers, we’ll be cooking up some vegetarian recipes next month. Stay tuned—we know you’re going to love ‘em!