Onigiri, Onigiri, Onigiri Hoooo!
I’ve come to the realization that I may, perhaps, be just a wee bit obsessive when it comes to certain things. Take for instance, this crazy little somethin’ somethin’ called onigiri that I first told you about from my sojourn to PAX East this year. Mind you, this was about 5 weeks ago and yet, that rice ball treat has continued to call out to me with its siren sushi rice voice and like a forgone sailor navigating between Scylla and Charybdis, I succumbed…
Succumbed how? 2 trips to my local H-Mart for supplies, another trip spanning 20 miles and 40 minutes to the only decent Japanese supermarket in these parts, and (I sheepishly admit) a few hours reading onigiri forums. Now, before you all go giggling at my very evident obsessive nature and my astoundingly charming nerdiness, I have to tell you that this stuff really is totally worth it. I probably could have gone without the road trip to Narbeth because the wrappers I got there were a bust, but the end result was so fantastic, so amazingly awesome, I don’t regret a single infatuated moment.
What is all the hubbub about you ask? Honestly, I couldn’t really tell you exactly why. In its most simplest form, onigiri is merely a wad of sushi rice, usually with some sort of filling in the middle, accompanied by some nori either enrobing it entirely or just a small piece acting as a means to hold the onigiri gracefully. Admittedly, it doesn’t sound that awe inspiring, but somehow, when all of these components come together, you get a culinary delight. I mean, it must have something going on in there because not only is it eaten with fervor and delight in Japan, it migrated across the seas into Korea where it’s equally enjoyed as samgak kimbap.
With every bite, you get the crunch of the nori which then gives way to the slightly sweet flavor from the sushi su vinegar in the rice while the core of the onigiri offers a great background to the filling that is found in the middle. And that’s just it…one of the best parts about this is that you can literally put anything you want into onigiri and it will work. I made some traditional fillings to start out with such as spicy tuna and kimchee, but I also made a few with some leftover sautéed beef and bean mixture from the nachos. Guess what? Tex-Mex onigiri isn’t half bad 😉 Next on the list, spam onigiri!
Adapted from a mish mash of various sources
For sushi rice
3 cups short grained rice, preferably sushi rice
4 tablespoons rice vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
For tuna filling
1 can tuna, drained
1 teaspoon oil (olive or vegetable)
1 clove minced garlic
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon roasted sesame seeds
Black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon garlic chili paste (optional)
Seasoned sheets of nori***
Prepare the sushi rice by first washing your rice in a large bowl with cold water, rubbing the grains gently. Drain and repeat 3 or 4 times. The decanted water should look less and less white with each washing. Soak rice in cold water for 15 to 20 minutes until the rice grains turn milky white.
Now, if you have a rice cooker, throw your rice in there, measure water until it’s a scant under the “3” marker, and turn it on. If you have to rough it, put your rice into a saucepan with a tight fitting lid, add just under 3 cups of water to the pot, and bring to a boil, then put on lowest heat to maintain a simmer, put the lid on, and cook rice for 15 minutes. Do not remove the lid. After 15 minutes, remove lid, and allow rice to cool and absorb the remaining liquid for about 10 minutes.
While rice is cooking, mix together rice vinegar, sugar, and salt until dissolved. Once rice is finished and while it’s still hot, turn rice out into a non-reactive bowl, preferably glass. Add vinegar mixture evenly over rice and using either a rice paddle or large wooden spoon, fold and mix the vinegar in throughout the rice. As you are folding in the vinegar mixture, fan the rice briskly with a hand or electric fan. Continue fanning and mixing until the rice has cooled to body temperature and appears glossy.
To make tuna filling, heat 1 teaspoon of vegetable or olive oil in frying pan over medium high heat until hot. Add minced garlic, tuna, soy sauce, sugar, and garlic chili paste if using. Sauté for about 3 minutes or until tuna looks to have absorbed all of the liquids (you want your filling to be on the drier side). Remove from heat and add in sesame oil and sesame seeds. Mix well.
To assemble onigiri, you can either use a onigiri mold, or take a small bowl and lay a sheet of good grade plastic wrap on top. Spoon sushi rice into the mold filling it about half or about a 1/4 cup into the bowl. Using your fingers, try to flatten it out a bit and then add 1 tablespoon of your filling. For my spicy tuna, I found that I liked it better with some sriracha added here. Spoon in more rice to cover the filling or to fill the mold. Use the 2nd piece of the mold to press down and finish the form. If using the plastic wrap method, pick up the edges of the plastic wrap and bring them together and twist so that you form a ball of onigiri. Using the plastic wrap to contain the onigiri, push and shape the ball till it resembles a triangle, remember the filling orientation and try to shape your triangle shape parallel to the filling layer so your filling doesn’t pop out.
If you’re going to eat your onigiri immediately, take the nori and wrap it around each onigiri and enjoy! If the onigiri is going to be enjoyed later, forego the nori until you’re ready to eat them. They keep fairly well in the refrigerator as long as they are wrapped up tightly in plastic wrap to prevent them from drying out.
***Note: I preferred slightly seasoned nori which has a little bit of sesame oil brushed on it and some salt. I found them to be more pliable and easier to wrap around the onigiri.