Onigiri: The Simple Rice Ball with a Long Past and a Bright Future

Japan’s ubiquitous onigiri rice ball comes as close as one can get to a perfect food. It is a convenient size, fitting easily in the palm of one’s hand. It can be eaten with the rice still warm from steaming or later at room temperature, and is delicious either way. It is easy to carry and can be tucked away in a lunch box or even a pocket, for picnics, hiking, even an energy boosting break from deskwork. It can be as simple as just salted rice, yet the potential varieties are as endless as the number of possible ingredients that can be put inside. Finally, an onigiri can be enough for a simple snack or the center of a filling meal.

Japan’s love affair with these rice balls goes way, way back. Carbonized clumps of rice that show signs of finger marks from squeezing have been found by archeologists dating back some 2000 years. It was during the Heian Period (794–1185) that a style similar to today’s onigiri first appeared, eaten by aristocrats’ domestic servants and farm workers. Over the years, they became a popular treat for everyone, including Edo-era (1600–1868) travelers depicted in traditional woodblock prints. It was during that period when wrapping the balls with nori seaweed sheets made them even more handy.


Travelers can be seen dining on onigiri in this 18th-century woodblock print from the series, “53 Stations of Tokaido,” by the artist Hiroshige Ando (courtesy of the National Diet Library Digital Collection)

Over the past three decades, while per capita rice consumption in Japan has gone down, the onigiri has maintained its position as a staple food. Nowhere is that more obvious than the shelves of specialty shops and the country’s convenience stores. Onigiri was an iconic product for Japan’s convenient store chains, which made it possible to eat the same standard of delicious, high-quality onigiri at outlets ranging from the northern island of Hokkaido to southern islands of Okinawa. The 7-Eleven chain of convenience stores launched onigiri sales in 1978, and today sells some 2 billion a year.


Seve-Eleven onigiri come with illustrations of the filling on the attractive packaging (This is an image picture).

Gihei Hashimoto consults with Seven-Eleven (Japan) on the rice used for their onigiri. He is the president of Hachidaime Gihey Co.,Ltd., a descendant of an Edo-era (1787) enterprise based in Kyoto that became a Japanese rice store in the early 20th century. It is now a rice wholesaler, with online sales, two restaurants, and a consultant business, looking at expanding sales overseas.


Rice “connoisseur” Gihei Hashimoto studies the grains of one rice variety.

Hashimoto works with the chain in four ways. His first task is to use his years of experience to act as a rice “connoisseur,” tasting and choosing the right product for onigiri, as the taste, aroma, consistency, and texture of rice can change year to year depending on the type of rice and where it is grown, due to weather conditions and other factors. Second, is the blending. “Usually varieties of rice are used on their own. But by understanding the particular characteristics of rice from different districts, we can create blends and keep onigiri fresh and flavorful even after they have been placed on stores shelves.” The third area of consultation involves methods of polishing, or milling. “Milling slowly and at low temperatures does not stress the rice and leaves the umami,” he says. The fourth area of consultation is on how the rice should be cooked. “We advised on ways to steam the rice so that it remains fluffy even when formed into onigiri,” he says.


Rice varieties are mixed to create a blend that will retain its flavor and consistency on the convenience store shelves.

In all these areas, consideration must be given to the fact that the company operates over 21,500 stores all over the country. This includes the packaging, which requires some very clever wrapping features to keep the onigiri fresh and easy to remove. With this care for quality, the future of convenience store onigiri seems to be in good hands.

Taro Tokyo Onigiri is a specialty store with two outlets in central Tokyo that opened in 2022. Miyuki Kawarada, the president of Rice Republic Inc., which operates the stores, says they would like to see this Japanese fast-food idea spread worldwide. “We use the phrase ‘Onigiri is the infinite universe,’” she says. “We think of the rice as a white canvas that can accept a variety of fillings, even those used in other cuisines.”


One of Taro Tokyo’s two outlets featuring their take-out onigiri.


The fillings are placed on top of the rice, which lets the customer see them, and highlights the colorful ingredients.

Taro Tokyo’s onigiri are unusual, as the fillings are placed on the rice, rather than inside it. This highlights the colors of the ingredients on display, making it easier for foreign customers to imagine the fillings—sometimes difficult given the hidden ingredients of traditional onigiri. There are standards as well as monthly specialties, like clams and miso in spring, corn in summer, chestnuts and yams in the fall, and duck and sukiyaki in the winter. Some are complex, a “marriage” of ingredients so customers can make new discoveries. “Still, the most popular filling for our foreign customers is roast beef with our original truffle sauce,” says Kawarada. “The separate sauce is poured on the beef before wrapping with nori.”

She would like to see foreigners try other ingredients, such as the cod and miso that comes with yuzu, the trendy citrus, or the simple taste of the very traditional shake salmon. “We also get quite a few requests from vegans and vegetarians,” says Kawarada. “True vegans don’t eat the traditional dashi broth, so we use a vegetable dashi for them, along with ingredients like tomatoes, broccoli and corn. For gluten free orders, we use shoyu without wheat.”




Kawarada’s recommendations: (from left) roast beef, cod with miso and yuzu, and the simple salmon, a traditional favorite.



Vegan offerings include tomato and broccoli fillings.

Having established a beachhead in Tokyo, Taro Tokyo is eager to expand, not only in Japan but to take their universal message to other countries. She notes that most of the largest global fast foods, such as hamburgers and sandwiches, use bread. Onigiri is Japanese “soul food” that has been a part of our food culture since ancient times,” she says. “I’d like to see onigiri become a globally known, healthy fast food based on rice.”

Given its benefits and convenient features, it’s easy to imagine the rice balls becoming a popular food offering in supermarkets and specialty stores overseas as well. If sushi has brought Japanese rice to the attention of a world-wide audience, perhaps the simple onigiri will make rice even more of a daily diet for people of all ages and tastes.

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