What is Onigiri? Japanese Traditional Meal

May 24th, 2018

Onigiri (Rice ball) is, without any exaggeration, a soul food for Japanese people.
We eat Onigiri regularly for breakfast, for lunch as Bento, and for a late snack.
Regardless of age and sex, Onigiri is widely loved food.

We eat Onigiri so often that we never stop to think what is its origin and history?

More and more, Onigiri culture is becoming cross-border. It’s spreading beyond Japan to other countries. So I took this opportunity to look deep into Japanese soul food, the food so familiar that we took for granted and discovered some very interesting things.

What is the history of Onigiri

First, let’s look back on the history of Onigiri.

1, Yayoi period (Between 3th B.C. to 3rd A.C.)

The history of the oldest Onigiri goes back all the way to the late Yayoi period.

As evidence, a carbonized chunk of rice, which seems like Onigiris, was discovered in Kashima-gun, Ishikawa Prefecture “Sugitani Chano Batake Saitama Site”.

This carburized rice has a trace held and grasped by human fingers and is called “the oldest Onigiri”.

The Onigiri of this time was, however, not cooked and hand shaped, it was probably first steamed and then baked. It was said to be a form close to chimaki rather than Onigiri.

2, Nara period (Between 710 to 794 B.C.)

Next, Onigiri appeared in early Nara period.

There is a description of “nigiri” (hand-formed rice) in one of the topography, “Hitachi no Kuni Fudoki” which Emperor Gemmei ordered for compilation.

The “Hitachi no Kuni” region is said to be rich in nature and was able to harvest abundant grains. We can imagine the colorful Onigiri made from red rice, millet, golden millet etc.

3, Heian period (Between 794 to 1185 A.C.)

In the Heian period, “Tonjiki” appears.

“Tonjiki” is a steamed mochigome(glutinous rice) formed tightly in shape by hand. When a nobleman held a banquet, he used to handout this Tonjiki to his servant. This scene is depicted in a famous Japanese novel of this era, “Genji Monogatari”.

It is also said that the soldiers used to carry Tonjiki as a portable meal. Onigiri at this time was supposed to be as large as 1.5 go (approx..500g) oval shape.

4, Kamakura period  (Between 1185 to 1333 A.C.)

Up to this time, Onigiris was made with mochigome (glutinous rice).

Onigiri made with the same rice we use now, uruchimai(non-glutinous rice) appears after this, at war of Jokyu.

Onigiri with umeboshi (salted plum) filling was handed to samurai worriers on the east side (side of the Kamakura government) as worriers food. This also triggered umeboshi to spread wildly within the country.

5, Sengoku period  (Between 1493 to 1573 A.C.)

Onigiri was regarded very useful as worriers’ nutrition and was often consumed by samurai worriers during Sengoku period.

During this period, vegetables were often cooked with rice and so the main ingredients for Onigiri were vegetables.

Up until this time, people consumed what is now called ancient rice, which is red rice and black rice. However, after Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s unification of the whole country, high productive white rice started to spread all over the country and was also used for Onigiri.

6, Edo period  (Between 1603 to 1868 A.C.)

In the Edo period, Gokaido, the five roadways were established throughout Japan, enhancing the movement of people. Onigiri was regarded as useful and handy Bento for people to carry during the travel. Onigiri at this time was just a rice shaped and formed by hand and not the style we enjoy today with seaweed wrapped around the rice. The rice wrapped in seaweed style would appear during Genroku era (1688 to 1707) when cultivation of Asakusa seaweed began and started to sell at shops. Seaweed is rich in nutrition and when wrapped around rice, it will prevent rice from sticking to hands. With these advantages, seaweed became an accompaniment to Onigiri.

7, Modern day

In this way, gradually changing its shape, Onigiri has been evolving into the form as it is today.
The first time Onigiri was sold in a retail shop such as convenience stores was in 1978, when Seven Eleven developed a new onigiri called “paricco film”.

This Onigiri is sold in a style where the rice and seaweed are separately wrapped in a film. After the purchase of Onigiri, customers can wrap seaweed onto rice by themselves. This style allows us to enjoy the seaweed’s crispy texture.

With the development of new product, Onigiri has become hit product at convenience stores. Nowadays, Onigiri is sold 1.7 billion pieces yearly at convenience stores and has grown to become the most popular product.

How did you find the history of Onigiri?

Some of you must have been surprised to learn that the origin of Onigiri dates back to the Yayoi Period.

Additionally, the style of Onigiri today, seaweed wrapped around cooked white rice, was not the initial style of Onigiri but was gradually formed in accordance with the development of rice and seaweed cultivation.

Now that we know the history of Onigiri lets go on to the origin of its naming.

The secret of the name “Onigiril” and “Omusubi”. What’s the difference?

How do you call Onigiri?

Some of you may call “Onigiri” and depend on the region and family, some of you may call “Omusubi”.

What is the difference between these two names?

1, Regional difference

While “Onigiri” is commonly used in most parts of Japan, it is said that there is a tendency of “Onigiri” used in eastern Japan and “Omusubi” in western Japan.

According to the survey, about 90% of people use “Onigiri” and only 9% calls by “Omusubi” among which 30% accounts for the people from Chugoku region.

In modern times where people’s traffic has dramatically increased, the regional deviation naming has leveled out, and the difference in naming is said to be the difference between each family and individual.

In the end, there seems to be no distinct difference in the region.

2, Differences due to origins

The origin of the name “Onigiri” is, as we can imagine naturally, from the movement of two hands forming the rice. On the other hand, the origin of the name “Omusubi” is a little complicated.

Among several theories, there is one that is interesting, that is “Omusubi” comes from the  God that appears in “Kojiki”(Japan’s oldest history book).

The two names of Gods, that are said to have appeared when the heaven and the earth broke up, are “Takami Musubi no Kami” and “Kami Musubii no Kami “. What is common to these two Gods is the name “Musubi”.

In this word, there is a meaning of the holy spirit and power that creates all things in heaven and earth. In order to acquire the power of these Gods, it is said that they made rice in a mountain shape from the custom of deifying the mountain and called it “Musubi”.

For this reason, “Omusubi” must be in a mountain shape, that is, a triangle, while Onigiri is irrespective of shape.

Even though “Onigiri” and “Omusubi” are same food, there are differences in origins.

I suppose that these two findings, “Omusubi” was derived from the name of God, and the reason for its shape must have been unexpected discovery to most of you.

What are the tips on how to make delicious Onigiri?

Onigiri is easy to make and can be made casually at home.

Let’s learn the tips to make simple delicious Onigiri and enjoy tasty plump Onigiri at home.

1, When you cook rice, make the amount of water discreet

Let’s make the amount of water less than usual so that the cooked rice will be slightly stiff.
If the moisture content is high, it tends to be damaged when grasped by the hand, and becomes a sticky Onigiri.

Also, stir the rice with rice scoop when it’s cooked so as to skip extra moisture after cooking.
The tip is to stir quickly, or the surface will dry out when exposed to air for too long.

2, Right amount of salt

What makes delicious about Onigiri is its slightly salty taste.

However, when actually forming Onigiri, it is difficult to figure out how much salt is the right amount.

As a rule of thumb, lightly wet your hands before forming, put salt on two or three of your finger cushions and form Onigiri.

Although it may seem too much, salt is evenly spread to your palm, given reasonable amount to the Onigiri.

3, Forming pressure

When forming Onigiri, form gently with an image like holding the baby’s hand.

As rice has a feature of getting stiff when cooled, giving too much pressure will result in stiff Onigiri when it’s cooled.

To make delicious Onigiri even when it’s cooled, remove the extra power and form it gently so that a little air remains inside.

Where can we eat delicious Onigiri in Singapore?

For Japanese, Onigiri is traditional food as well as the easy-to-make homemade recipe.
So, how do people in other countries accepted Onigiri?
In the Asian region where they share the same rice culture, Onigiri can be seen at convenience stores or Onigiri specialty stores.

In Singapore, there is an Onigiri specialty shop called SAMURICE, that uses Japanese rice for their products.

There are five SAMURICE shops throughout Singapore, serving localized menus for Singaporeans to accept easily.

For example, shrimp chilli Ongiri and chicken rice Onigiri, Singaporean famous cuisine made in Onigiri style.

Traditional Japanese food has developed in different style overseas and accepted locally.

At SAMURICE shop, rice called Akitakomachi from Akita prefecture is used and cooked together with kombu (kelp) from Hokkaido.

Not only the taste of salt but also the flavor of kombu can be scent softly from rice.

Onigiri machine is incorporated to form Onigiri at this shop. The weight of the rice and pressure to apply when forming Onigiri are calculated by the machine.

For more information on SAMURICE, click here.


I have introduced the history of Onigiri, secrets of naming and how to make it at home.

In addition, I have shown how these cultures are spreading abroad.

Now that you know more about Onigiri, it might taste differently next time?

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