What is Onigiri? (And Other Onigiri Questions, Answered)

what is onigiri the bailiwick academy
what is onigiri the bailiwick academy

What is onigiri, you ask?

Well, that’s a good question, especially if you’re not familiar with Japanese food. It’s a popular snack in Japan that you can easily get in convenience stores. We say that it’s especially convenient because these rice balls (or rice triangles) wrapped with nori and stuffed with various fillings are easy to unpeel and eat while on the go.

It’s a snack we’re sure Filipinos will appreciate since it’s made of rice. That’s something we’re sure of as even 7-11 here has started selling onigiri.


But in order for us to TRULY appreciate something, we need to learn more about it. Do you agree?

If yes, then join us as we take a closer look at onigiri! 

Why is it called onigiri?

To be honest, there’s no real answer to where the name comes from. According to the Japanese Products blog, the origin of the word “onigiri” comes from the act of grasping rice.

Another theory is from Matcha Japan. Onigiri was apparently named after two of the creation gods from Japanese mythology. 

Whatever the origin, we’re just glad that the Japanese came up with this rice snack. But how did it come about, exactly?

What is the history of onigiri?

According to Wikipedia, there were various records of this rice meal, even before it was called onigiri, such as: 

  • In the 11th century, people often consumed rice balls during picnics. 
  • During the seventeenth century, samurai had rice balls wrapped in bamboo sheaths as quick meals.
  • During the Nara period, rice was commonly rolled into a small ball so it could be picked up easily.
  • In the Heian period, people shaped rice into small rectangular shapes to pile them on plates and easily eat them.
  • Cooks during the Kamakura period to the early Edo period started serving onigiri as a quick meal. The onigiri version during this period was simply a ball of rice flavored with salt.

Tokyo Restaurants Guide provides us with additional historical facts about onigiri, such as:

  • Carbonized rice was discovered in late Yayoi Period ruins. They were wrapped in bamboo leaves shaped like corn, then boiled or steamed.
  • Onigiri started to be eaten as rations or packed lunches during the Sengoku period
  • Onigiri wrapped with nori originated during the Genroku era of the Edo period. It was also during this time that common people started to bring onigiri to firework displays and cherry blossom viewing parties, and where travelers started to seriously bring them as portable food.
  • It was in 1885 when onigiri started to be sold as lunches for train passengers in Utsunomiya Station in Tochigi Prefecture.
  • In the 1970s, convenience stores started to pop up in Japan. These stores then started selling onigiri with nori. From there, innovation after innovation happened, until the modern onigiri was developed.

Is onigiri the same as sushi?

Now, both are from Japan, and both have rice. Does that mean onigiri is equivalent to sushi?

The answer is no. They do look similar, but they’re different meals.

Onigiri, for instance, doesn’t ever have raw fish. Plus, onigiri is shaped differently from sushi. And while onigiri is an everyday meal in Japan, sushi is something considered special, usually enjoyed on special occasions.

And besides, the origins of sushi are way different from the origins of onigiri.

Check out this very helpful illustration by Onigiri Kororin to further differentiate the two:

onigiri vs sushi

If you do want sushi, though, you can check out our Modern Sushi and Maki class.

What is the difference between omusubi and onigiri?

So you might have been doing your own research, and you find out that onigiri is also being called omusubi. Is there a difference between the two?

Unlike sushi, omusubi can also indeed mean onigiri. Both are rice balls with the same contents. They are simply called by different names depending on which Japanese region you’re in.

We prefer using onigiri, probably because it rolls off our tongues better. How about you?

Is onigiri a snack?

Well, we could say it can count as both a snack and as a real meal. After all, it has rice and various flavors. 

We guess it would really be up to you and how you would define a snack and a real meal, right?

Can onigiri be sweet?

Onigiri is usually rice stuffed with savory flavors, but if you’re making your own onigiri, there’s no one to stop you from whatever combination you want to pair with rice, right?

For your reference, though, SoraNews24 does say that there are already sweet onigiri cakes in Japan:

sweet onigiri cake

We’d definitely like to try these out, especially if someday, the concept catches on in the Philippines!

What is onigiri made of?

making onigiri

At the very core, onigiri is made up of rice, nori, and any sour or salty ingredient that acts as a natural preservative. 

What rice is used for onigiri, you ask? Normally, you would use boiled rice, but there are rice variants that have been used already, such as glutinous rice cooked or steamed with vegetables, cooked rice with preferred ingredients, and even fried rice.

What can onigiri be filled with?

inside of an onigiri

What does onigiri have in it? Well, there are plenty of options:

  • Tuna with mayonnaise
  • Pickled Japanese plums
  • Salmon
  • Beef short ribs
  • Salmon Roe
  • Dried bonito flakes
  • Seaweed
  • Shrimp with mayonnaise
  • Fermented tuna
  • Dried mackerel
  • Pork
  • Miso
  • Tempura

Again, if you’re the one making your own rice balls, then you have the freedom to choose what you want to put in it! 

Can onigiri be made the night before?

Let’s say you want to enjoy onigiri for tomorrow, but you don’t want to get up early just to make it. Can you make onigiri at night and eat it in the morning?

Well, you can, but you’re going to have to do some extra steps to make sure the rice doesn’t become hard and fall apart. Here are Just Hungry’s tips to ensure fresh-tasting onigiri in the morning:

  • For the rice, use sushi rice. The other kinds of rice don’t really stay moist. 
  • And speaking of rice, make sure you make onigiri with freshly cooked rice, not room-temperature rice. Your onigiri will not stick and will dry out quickly.
  • Wrap your rice ball in plastic wrap before placing them in the refrigerator. That way, the moisture is trapped and your onigiri will not dry out. 
  • To keep the nori crispy, bring it separately, and do not place it in the ref!

What is the shelf life of onigiri?

How long is it good for before you have to throw them out? Well, since they don’t contain preservatives, and rice is perishable, they are good for 18 hours.  

Now, if you’re wondering if onigiri can be frozen to make them last longer. The answer is a yes! When you plan to eat them, pop them in the microwave. 

It might take you a while to get the right setting, but once you do, your onigiri will taste like they were freshly made.

Is onigiri good?

mother and son

Yes, onigiri is delicious – nothing else needs to be said! Hey, rice plus your filling of choice – what else would you need?

Besides, if its only main selling point is convenience to eat, we’re sure it wouldn’t have lasted as long as it has in Japan!

So our advice is not to delay, and go taste some onigiri today!

Where can I find onigiri near me?

Well, we did mention convenience stores carrying onigiri… But wouldn’t you rather make your own? That way, you have the freedom to choose the rice you want to eat, and the fillings you want to place.

No idea how to do it? Then watch this video featuring Chef Max Nadin! His last free class involved roasted garlic – this time, he’s going to teach you how to make onigiri!

This is a free treat from The Bailiwick Academy! Make sure to watch the whole video to get the techniques down pat.

Find this valuable and super amazing? Then sign up at The Bailiwick Academy for even more valuable and amazing content. It’s worth it, we promise!

Especially if you want to learn how to cook or bake delicious food, AND start a food business.

See you inside!


Keep coming back to The Bailiwick Academy blog for more kitchen tips, tricks, and much more!

2 thoughts on “What is Onigiri? (And Other Onigiri Questions, Answered)”

  1. Pingback: Indian Cuisine Menu Items to Try! - The Bailiwick Academy

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