Onigiri - Filled Rice Balls

"One night, while up very late talking with my mother, we started making onigiri for a picnic the next day with the kids, her grandchildren. Onigiri is something that children love, that everyone loves, as they make possibly the most perfect portable food or a snack on the run for a lunchbox, a picnic or a train ride.

I watched my mother shape them in her hands – she rubbed a pinch of salt on them so the rice wouldn’t stick, cupped the onigiri, pressing with both hands, firmly but not too much – just right.

Onigiri comes from the words, o, meaning ‘giving honour’ and nigiri, ‘to grasp’. This is more than just a ball of rice. I remember being told that in the act of making onigiri, you transmit your love through your hands into the rice for the person you are making it for.

I was watching my mother do just that that night. Onigiri is shaped into a little triangle of rice that is seasoned with anything you want – it can even be left plain! My favourites are also classics: salmon (leftover grilled salmon would be perfect, but if you don’t have any handy then some lightly cooked smoked salmon is a great replacement), sesame and umeboshi (pickled plums).

If umeboshi has too much of a kick for you, you can simply leave it out or make your own onigiri with whatever foods you have around, even a little ball of tinned tuna mixed with some Japanese mayonnaise in the centre is very good.

You can also mix things into the rice: cooked peas, corn or edamame, for example. If you like, you can wrap nori around the onigiri so you don’t get your hands sticky when eating them. If you aren’t serving them immediately, though, pack the nori separately so that the seaweed will remain nice and crisp."

GOHAN: Everyday Japanese Cooking by Emiko Davies (Smith Street Books, £26) Photography: Yuki Sugiura

More: Read Emiko's exclusive Q&A with Sous Chef about the food of her childhood, and the ingredients that excite her

Ingredients for Onigiri

How to make onigiri

  1. Quickly cook the smoked salmon in a non-stick or lightly oiled pan until opaque, pale and almost crumbly, about 3 minutes. Place in a bowl and mix with half of the rice, along with the spring onion.
  2. With wet hands, take a pinch of salt and rub it over your hands. Pick up about half of the salmon-rice mixture and firmly cup in both of your hands to give it a firm triangle shape with no loose rice. Set down and repeat so that you have two salmon onigiri. If you find any rice is sticking to your hands, wet them again and rub a pinch of salt back over your hands.
  3. Stir the sesame seeds through the remaining rice until well distributed. Wet and salt your hands as before, take half of the sesame-rice and place half an umeboshi in the middle of the rice before cupping in your hands to shape into a triangle. Repeat with the rest of the rice and the rest of the umeboshi.
  4. The onigiri can be enjoyed as they are, or placed in a bento box to be eaten later that day. You can also pack them with a piece of nori (split a large sheet in half so you have two long pieces about 10 cm/4 in wide and use these to wrap around the whole onigiri), which helps to make eating them less sticky.
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