Onigiri: Japan’s Meal-on-the-Run Finds a Home in New York City

By Lily Chin


(Photographs by Lily Chin)

The next time you feel like having a quick lunch, take a tip from the Japanese—who know a thing or two about fast-paced, urban living—and grab a few onigiri.

Onigiri (pronounced as OH-nee-ghee-ree), also named omusubi, are Japanese rice balls, often triangular and stuffed with savory fillings.

In Japan, typical onigiri fillings include maaji nozawana (saurel with coleseed greens), kimchi chahan (kimchi fried rice), gyugobou (beef and burdock root), maguro (raw tuna), osekihan (sticky rice and adzuki beans) and negimiso (green onions and miso). Housewives often make them using leftover dishes and rice from the previous night’s meal.

In New York City, onigiri sold in Japanese delis and markets include some traditional Japanese flavors—like ume (salty sour plum), kombu (soy-glazed kelp), shirasu (salty dried baby anchovies), and mentaiko (spicy pollack roe)—as well as flavors more accommodating to the Western palate. These include tuna (canned) mixed with spicy or regular mayonnaise, shrimp tempura (battered and fried shrimp) dressed in spicy or regular mayonnaise, chicken katsu (fried chicken cutlet), and salted salmon.

Onigiri date back to Japan’s Heian Period, between 794 and 1185. In imperial courts of that time, egg-shaped balls of densely packed rice, filled with beans, millet and vegetables, were served to low-ranking officials.

During the Sengoku Period, in the 15th and 16th centuries, onigiri were also an efficient way for samurai to eat quickly and efficiently while waging war. Writings from that period describe samurai carrying rice balls wrapped in thin bamboo sheets into battle.

Because they were easy to make—and eat (without utensils), onigiri later became a popular component of the first ekiben, pre-made lunches sold to travelers in Japanese train stations. Onigiri are still sold in most train stations in Japan—but now they’re typically wrapped in nori, square, paper-thin sheets of seaweed (also used to wrap sushi rolls)that hold the rice ball together, making consumption mess-free.

In Manhattan, grab-and-go onigiri can be found in several Japanese delis and markets, like Café Zaiya, Panya and Sunrise Mart. New York’s lone omusubi specialist shop, Oms/B on 45th St. in Manhattan, was replaced by a new outpost of Cafe Zaiya last fall.

Onigiri can be eaten both hot and cold. Reheating brings out the flavors in onigiri stuffed with fried or cooked foods, like chicken katsu. However, onigiri with ume, tuna and other raw ingredients are best eaten cold because microwaving them will change the texture of their fillings.

At Café Zaiya, onigiri are wrapped in plastic in a way that separates the rice from the nori, keeping the seaweed fresh and crisp. Zaiya’s ume onigiri is a must-try. The ume packs a potent salty-and-sour punch (with a subtle plum taste). Eat it slowly, in small bites, to avoid sodium overload.

But at Panya, onigiri are bagged in a microwaveable plastic wrap, with the nori already wrapped around the rice ball. These onigiri have chewy, soft nori and can be eaten hot or cold. Panya’s shrimp tempura onigiri (see photo at top) is an excellent specimen of reheatable onigiri. After a minute in the microwave, the oils in the shrimp melt into savory juices and spread throughout the ball, while the rice softens and tastes almost freshly made.

A third type of onigiri, typically found at sit-down restaurants and izakaya (sake bars that serve small dishes), are yaki onigiri. These are glazed in soy sauce and grilled until the rice is slightly crisp on the outside.

Oh! Taisho offers yaki onigiri with fillings like mentaiko. After a long grilling (about 10 minutes), the pollack roe is cooked thoroughly and has a nice chewy texture. The rice ball, itself, is dense—with a nice smoky, charred, soy flavor. But unlike other onigiri—ideal for eating on the run, the grilled variety are best savored slowly, in between sips of sake.

Café Zaiya
18 East 41st St. (map)
New York, NY 10017

8 Stuyvesant St. (map)
New York, NY 10003

Sunrise Mart
29 Third Ave. (map)
New York, NY 10003

Oh! Taisho
9 St. Marks Pl. (map)
New York, NY 10003

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