Your guide to Onigiri, the sandwich of Japan

By on April 2, 2012
Onigiri is Japan’s traditional finger food made up of sticky plain rice with various salty,  sour flavored stuffing at the center and wrapped in a crispy  “nori” (seaweed) sheet. Commercial onigiris found in convenient stores are pressed in triangular shapes but it is not unusual to find oval or round shapes at some stores. One Japanese TV program once took a poll from a group of foreigners from France, Belgium, and Australia  to find out which onigiri shape had the most grip and was easier to eat.  And the winner was … the triangle!

Where does one find the best tasting onigiri in town? That all depends on what one prefers in an onigiri. Some eat it warm, some eat it cold. Some eat it with complementing miso soup. They are all over konbinis (convenient stores), supermarkets or at food stores of some big department stores in Tokyo.  For some who do not read kanji, and find it difficult to decipher what stuffing is inside and what to expect, here’s a practical guide.  For lack of space, I have only included the most common ones found in convenience stores…

Tuna 
What to expect:  Do not be confused with  the name.  Sea Chicken (pronounced in Japanese as “she chicken”) is tuna.  Depending on the label, it can be  plain salted tuna or with mayonnaise.

Mayonnaise Chicken  
What to expect:  One can’t go wrong with chicken mayonnaise if you are giving it to children.  With the rich flavor of chicken and creamy texture of mayonnaise, kids would prefer this to fish or vegetable stuffing.

Yakiniku   Yakiniku
What to expect:    Grilled beef or pork with a smokey, Korean barbecue flavor.  Korean barbecue appeals to almost all foreigners, adults and children, who love meat. If you are not a big fan of cod roes or fish, this could appeal to you.  This one is a winner.  

Cod Roe   Tarako
What to expect:   Mildly salted, moist and goes well with rice.

Spicy Cod Roe   Mentaiko
What to expect:  The stuffing comes from Alaska Pollock’s roe marinated and usually spicier than a regular Tarako.  It is also darker pink in color.

Pickled Plum    Ume  
What to expect:  The pickled plum is usually preserved in shiso or perilla leaves giving it some herbal aroma and tangy flavor unique to Japanese food.  

Cooked Salmon   Yaki Sake 
What to expect:   Like tuna, this is one of the stuffing foreigners eat most of the time.  Salmon flakes stuffed in plain rice is slightly similar to sushi in taste without the wasabi and vinegar seasoning. Note:   It might be a safe option to not feed this to young children because of the slight likelihood of the presence of fish bones.  

Seaweed or Kelp    
What to expect:   A health buff will find this a delight to eat because of the health benefits of seaweed which most other cuisines lack.  Shredded kelp strips.

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