Slideshow SLIDESHOW: How to Make Onigiri

In these post-holiday days of getting back to basics and back to work, I'm looking to keep things simple without falling into the humdrum. To me, that means foods that are uncomplicated but also a little fun. Like onigiri.

If fine sushi-making is a culinary art form, you could think of onigiri as culinary arts 'n' crafts. More humble and practical than sushi, and with a lot of potential for cuteness, onigiri is, not surprisingly, a mainstay of the Japanese bento box and a popular quick meal.

These little flavored rice balls are made with sushi rice, but the rice is not fanned and seasoned with rice vinegar and sugar as it is in sushi-making. Instead, the rice is simply salted lightly. Sushi tends to showcase the most delicate—and often expensive—cuts of seafood and tender vegetables. Onigiri, on the other hand, makes use of leftovers and other ingredients you might have around, often hiding them inside the rice.

Here's where the cuteness factor comes in: onigiri is sometimes decorated with little faces or dressed up as bunny rabbits. If you didn't get to decorate enough cookies this holiday season, here's your second chance.

The Basic Ingredients

Not much planning or advanced preparation is required for making onigiri. All you need is some warm cooked sushi rice, salt, and a few flavorful additions.

I always relied on a Japanese rice cooker and didn't learn how to make rice any other way until after college.*

* In case you could use a rice-cooking primer, here it is. Rinse 1 ½ cups of sushi rice in water, drain, bring the rice to a simmer in a saucepan with 2 cups of water, cover and lower the heat to medium-low for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and keep the saucepan covered for another 10 minutes.

You can leave the rice plain, mix additions like herbs, seasonings, or finely chopped meat and vegetables into it, or place a filling in the center of the rice ball.

If you choose to fill your onigiri, pick something flavorful. That way, if you are eating it on the go, you don't have to use a dipping sauce. A few bits of leftover broiled fish or fried chicken can go a long way. If the filling needs a little boost, mix it with a touch of soy sauce, lemon juice, mayonnaise, or hot sauce before tucking it into the rice and forming a ball.

Other traditional onigiri ingredients like tsukudani (seasoned kombu seaweed) and umeboshi (pickled plum) are also ideal because they keep for a long time and take up little space. Don't fret if you don't have these ingredients on-hand; you probably have several promising options (canned tuna? pickled vegetables? Vegemite?) just waiting to be rediscovered in your pantry.

Check out the slideshow for more playful, yummy takes on onigiri »

Filling and Forming Onigiri

There are a few ways you can form the rice balls.

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By hand. I find it easiest to pack them into triangles, but some people prefer rolling them into balls. Have a bowl of salted water set up and moisten your palms with it. This will prevent the rice from sticking and the salt will season the rice.

Spread a palmful (or less, depending on how big you want the onigiri to be) of warm sushi rice into one hand. If you are using a filling, place it (in this case, umeboshi) in the middle. Fold up the rice around the filling. Pack the rice tightly with both hands.

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With a mold. There are onigiri molds made especially for this job, but you can easily rig up your own—don't put those holiday cookie-cutters in storage yet.

Salt the rice directly, since you're not using salted water on your hands. Moisten the mold and place it over a non-stick surface such as parchment paper. Press rice into the mold, filling it halfway. Form a small hole in the middle and place your filling (tsukudani pictured) in it. Fill the rest of the mold with rice and pack it in well, with your fingers or the bottom of a cup.

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Use a damp clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap. The towel method works especially well if the rice is very hot. If you use plastic wrap, save it to wrap up and store the onigiri.

Place the lightly salted rice into the towel or plastic wrap. Tuck the filling (takuan, or pickled daikon radish, in this one) in the center and gather the towel up so that the rice surrounds the filling. Twist and squeeze the towel. When you unwrap it, the rice ball should be well-packed, like a good snowball.

Dressing the Outside

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Once the rice balls have been formed, you can leave them unadorned, roll them in furikake seasoning (savory sprinkles, often with seaweed, sesame seed, salt, and dried fish), wrap them in nori, or decorate them. If you are not eating them right away, wrap them well in wax paper or plastic wrap. To keep the nori from getting soggy, store it separately and wrap it around the onigiri just before eating.

Yaki Onigiri

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You can even revive onigiri that's gotten a little dried out. Just toast them up lightly for a few minutes on a hot skillet, brush on soy sauce and a little toasted sesame oil, and toast both sides again for another minute or two. The outside will get crispy and the inside will be tender and moist.

About the author: Kumiko writes the blog Recipe Interrupted. She believes that having a few cooking techniques under your belt can help make home cooking creative and easy, and is excited to share her tips with the Serious Eats community. A graduate of Brown University, the Institute of Culinary Education, and a mother of two hungry girls, Kumiko is always trying to keep her Brooklyn kitchen smelling of something good.

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