Can someone please transport us back to Japan? We fell in love with the country five years ago when we visited for the first time. It was the height of summer, and even though it was incredibly hot and humid, we didn’t let the weather slow us down. Every day we would walk for miles—never taking a cab—exploring the immaculate cities of Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima, and Miyajima. We have never felt so welcomed in any new place before, and the people were warm, polite, and always helpful. On several occasions as we stood on the sidewalk looking at our map, strangers approached us and not only asked if we needed assistance, but then walked with us for several blocks to make sure we arrived at the correct destination. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Los Angeles anymore.
We stopped into dozens of ancient temples in Kyoto, toured the stunning Japanese gardens that decorate every town, petted the tame deer that wander the streets of Nara, visited a park where we fed snow monkeys by hand, and coincidentally ended up in Hiroshima on the anniversary of the atomic bomb. And even though we did plenty of research before the trip, finding vegetarian food was not always easy. We discovered the wonders of zaru soba, a cold noodle dish perfect for summer; learned about okonomiyaki, a Japanese-style savory pancake; and ate bowls of ramen, udon noodles, and veggie sushi rolls. That may sound like a decent variety, but since we were there for two weeks, there were many repeat meals. This light snack we are sharing with you today is available in almost every convenience store in Japan. We would buy a few each morning, put them in our backpacks, and they would get us through the day, preventing anyone from getting hangry as low blood sugar and humidity do not go hand in hand. Say konnichiwa to onigiri.
You’ll never go hungry again! Onigiri are traditional Japanese rice cakes made with a variety of fillings, wrapped in nori seaweed. Simple, handheld, and portable, these cute triangular treats are perfect for a light breakfast, a quick nibble between meals, or a satisfying and healthy snack for those arbitrary late night munchies. Today we are filling ours with umeboshi, a tart Japanese pickled plum, but feel free to get creative and fill yours with whatever your heart desires. Often they are filled with fish or meat, but avocado and steamed vegetables are other tasty options that also work wonderfully. Join us today on Instagram at 12pm PST as we prepare these lifesavers live from our kitchen, come sun or sunshine.
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (230g) uncooked short-grain rice (1 1/2 “rice cooker cups”)
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
3/4 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon mirin (optional, see note)
1 umeboshi plum, seeded and finely chopped (see note)
1 sheet nori seaweed, cut into 4 strips
Place the rice in a bowl or pot, and fill with water. Use your hands to swish the rice around, rubbing the grains gently between your fingers, until the water becomes milky white. Carefully pour off most of the water, leaving the rice behind. Repeat several times, until the water runs clear. Transfer the rice to a fine-mesh strainer and let drain for 15 to 30 minutes.
If using a rice cooker: place the drained rice in the bowl of the cooker, and fill with water to the 1 1/2 cups line. Let soak for at least 30 minutes or up to half a day, then cook according to manufacturer’s instructions.
If cooking on the stove: Place the drained rice in a medium saucepan, and add 1 1/2 cups of water. Cover, and let soak for at least 30 minutes or up to half a day, then place the pan over medium heat without removing the lid. Once you hear the water starting to boil and steam begins to escape from the sides of the lid, lower the heat to a bare simmer and set a timer for 7 minutes. When the timer rings, turn the stove off and let the pan rest for 10 to 20 minutes without removing the lid.
While the rice is cooking, combine the rice vinegar, sugar, salt, and optional mirin in a small bowl, and stir to dissolve.
When the rice is done, transfer it to a large mixing bowl and pour over the seasoned vinegar. Use a rice paddle or spatula to fold and toss the rice, being careful to not mash the grains. As you toss, use a fan (or an assistant with a fan) to cool the rice until it can be handled comfortably.
Take a small bowl or teacup—about 1/2 cup in size—and lay a sheet of plastic wrap on top, pressing it down into the cup. Fill the bowl about 3/4 full with rice, pressing it down gently with the back of the paddle. Place about 1/2 teaspoon of minced umeboshi in the middle, then cover it with additional rice, filling the cup until it is rounded on top. Gather up the plastic wrap and lift the rice out of the bowl, wrapping it tightly then squeezing it into a compact ball. Then gently use your fingers to shape the ball into a triangle. Unwrap the rice from the plastic, and place a strip of nori seaweed around the outside. Serve immediately, and enjoy!
— Be sure to use a short-grain Japanese rice for this recipe. Fluffy long-grain rice varieties like basmati will not hold together, and won’t work here. The steps of rinsing, draining, and soaking are essential to get the perfect chewy-sticky texture that authentic Japanese rice is famous for.
— Mirin is a type of sweet sake (rice wine) that is used for cooking, and it is commonly found in the asian section of many grocery stores. Be sure to buy true mirin (hon mirin) which has an alcohol content around 14%, instead of imitation mirin which has little to no alcohol and is filled with additional flavorings and preservatives. It’s a great ingredient to keep in the kitchen for its versatility in asian cooking, but this recipe uses such a small amount that if you cannot find a bottle of mirin, feel free to omit it.
— Umeboshi are preserved Japanese plums with an intensely salty and tart flavor. They are never eaten by themselves, instead they are enjoyed in small doses as a condiment. They can be found in grocery stores and online.
— If making the onigiri ahead of time, do not wrap them in seaweed yet: keep them in plastic until ready to eat, then wrap them in seaweed just before serving. This keeps the nori dry and fresh.
— In Japan, onigiri are made with a variety of fillings. Instead of umeboshi, try adding sliced avocado or pickled ginger for different variations.