On the Go with Savory Rice Balls

Omusubi or onigiri is portable, savory food that has fueled the stomachs of Japanese people for centuries and is considered Japanese “soul food.” Originally, they were simply prepared as rice balls flavored with salt. Over time, they were filling omusubi with ingredients such as pickled plums, salmon, and cod roe, or mixing in ingredients like seaweed and sesame seeds, and at times encasing the balls with nori (dried seaweed).

It’s an accepted notion in Japanese culinary culture that the rice, not the filling, is the real star of omusubi. Nowhere is this more evident than with Omusubi Gonbei’s specialty, their handmade omusubi. They start with high quality unprocessed rice imported from contracted farmers in three regions of Japan. The rice is polished at their New York and New Jersey locations every day, which ensures optimum freshness and flavor. Their signature rice balls are triangular and are about 30% bigger than standard size.

My visit to the Manhattan location came with an invitation to learn to make omusubi with Satoshi Okumura, who co-manages the place. He starts by scooping hot cooked rice which is weighed on a scale to ensure that the rice ball sizes are uniform. Then he places the rice on his left palm, on which he makes a small well for the filling. He shapes the rice into a triangle by very gently pushing it with his right palm, and then turning and patting the ball around a few times to reach its desired shape. According to Okumura, the secret to making omusubi is not to smash the rice when forming it. He then seasons the rice lightly with Okinawan sea salt and tucks it into a small sheet of nori.

Okumura makes the process of creating omusubi seem easy — he can make ten of it in three minutes! It was a lesson in humility for me who has never made this treat, for I struggled when it was time to form the rice into its triangular shape. It was fascinating to watch and experience making omusubi but more than that, I appreciated the insights I gained on the Japanese’s seemingly innate respect for ingredients, the preciseness in which they create their food, and the simple beauty that results from the process.

— Reported by Maria Steinberg

Satoshi Okumura weighs cooked hot rice on a scale to ensure each rice ball weighs 130gm, about 4.5oz.

He puts the rice on his left palm, and makes a well in the center with his right hand.

He fills the well with seasoned salmon.

Here I am trying to shape the omusubi while Okumura repeats the process for my benefit.

Freshly-prepared beni-zake (grilled sockeye salmon) omusubi. An important technique in making omusubi is to hand-form the rice gently.

The Manhattan location sells popular varieties such as spicy tuna, Spam with egg custard, and rice mixed with dried baby sardines & shiso.

Omusubi Gonbei
120 E. 41st St., (inside Katagiri Grocery), New York, NY 10017 | TEL: 917-472-7025
595 River Rd., (inside Mitsuwa Marketplace), Edgewater, NJ 07020 | TEL: 201-941-9113

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