Translated by Lester Somera
Japanese Encyclopedia: Onigiri and Omusubi
Simple, cheap, portable and delicious, onigiri and omusubi, or rice balls, have been beloved by Japanese people since ancient times. Try one for yourself!
Written by MATCHA
Every Japanese person has eaten an onigiri or an omusubi, food made from white rice formed into triangles or cylinders at least once in their lifetime. Onigiri and omusubi have a long history; hard clumps of steamed rice, thought to be primitive versions of onigiri, have been discovered at ruins dated from the 1st Century AD.
Developed as rations for soldiers and portable meals for travelers, onigiri and omusubi became part of the fabric of Japanese food culture. Even now, they are indispensable to the Japanese dining table as meals for people on the go, as light snacks, or as food for picnics and outdoor events.
The Difference Between Onigiri and Omusubi
Onigiri and omusubi are made by cooking rice, molding it into a triangle or other shape by hand, then inserting other ingredients into the rice. They are called either onigiri or omusubi depending on the region, store or household, but neither is the “correct” way. There is no particular difference between the two, but there are varying explanations as to why different people say “onigiri” or “omusubi.”
We’ll introduce a few of these explanations here. The first theory claims that omusubi are named after Takamimusubi and Kamimusubi, two of the creation gods from Japanese mythology. Japanese people of old, who deified mountains as gods, would share in that divine power by molding their rice into mountain shapes; these were then called “omusubi.”
Another theory states that during the Heian age, people of high social status referred to their rice balls as “omusubi,” while commoners called them “onigiri.” Other theories claim that the words onigiri and omusubi are derived from “oni o kiru” (meaning “to cut down evil spirits”) and “en o musubu” (meaning “to forge a relationship”). There are various other explanations, as well.
How to Make That Shape
The basics of how to make an onigiri or omusubi are quite simple. Take freshly-cooked rice, and mold it with both hands into your desired shape while it is still warm; then all you have to do is insert a filling. Wet your hands slightly and sprinkle your palms with a little salt each time you mold an onigiri. People mold onigiri into triangles, balls or barrel shapes.
These days, there are even onigiri shaped like stars or hearts. In recent years, a new style has become popular, known as ‘onigirazu,’ which can be completed by just wrapping the rice and its filling in nori seaweed, without molding it.
An Endless Number of Variations
Onigiri and o-musubi have many flavor variations depending on the combination of ingredients. Let’s take a look at the ingredients which make up the inside and outside of an onigiri.
The exterior is typically wrapped in nori seaweed, but you can also see onigiri wrapped in thin omelets, coated with furikake (Japanese seasoning powder), or dressed with grated yam and sesame seeds, and more.
There are also fillings which have been staples since ancient times, such as pickled plums, dried bonito flakes, and kombu seaweed. Other fillings which have been popularized in the last decade include tarako fish roe, mentaiko fish roe, tuna with mayonnaise, and shrimp with mayonnaise.
In addition, there is no end to the new onigiri variations which people continue to devise, such as ‘ten-musu onigiri’ (topped with shrimp tempura) and ‘niku-maki onigiri’ (wrapped in meat).
Try An Onigiri From These Places When You Visit Japan
Onigiri and o-musubi will slightly vary in price according to the store and the ingredients, but you can expect to pay 100 to 200 yen for one. They are sold at places like convenience stores, kiosks, bento box shops and izakayas all over the country.
There are also shops which specialize in onigiri and omusubi, like Gonbei, which has branches all over the Tokyo metropolitan area. At Tokyo’s oldest specialty onigiri shop, Onigiri Asakusa Yadoroku, you can see the staff make the onigiri in front of your eyes.
Practically every person in Japan from their earliest childhood has enjoyed the taste of handmade onigiri and omusubi; how about trying one for yourself?