Onigiri – Japanese Rice Sandwiches

We are settled down in the mountain town of Hakuba, a small town in the Nagano prefecture on the Western side of Japan. I wasn’t expecting the alpine to be similar to the Canadian Rockies, but there are times where you swear you are in Fernie.  Happo-One, pronounced hap-po o-nay (means 8 ridges) is the closest ski resort to us and is known as the competition venue for the 1998 Olympic Winter Games Nagano. I can’t believe it was 18 years ago now!

Along with history and beautiful mountains there is the amazing culture and food of Japan.  A typical grocery store experience here in Hakuba, Japan can be so interesting or completely overwhelming for a gaijin (foreigner).  Once you get past the jingles that play throughout the store that shouts the specials in a repetitive catchy songs – much like our commercial jingles that we all know like U-ni-ted Furniture Ware-house (do do), or Da da da da da I’m loving it, however these ones are on repeat and in each isle.  I imagine the cashiers and staff there have mastered a meditative state of blocking them out so they don’t go crazy.  SO, beyond all the jingles…the layout of the grocery store is the same, but everything is different.  For instance, there is a produce section but there is 15 different types of mushrooms, bamboo, lotus root and tons of leafy greens that you have never seen before. There is a meat section full of amazing sushi grade fish, and the animal meat is cut in all different ways for different dishes.  The center isles are for packaged goods and that is where the real trouble comes, for the one reason is it’s all in Japanese lettering called kanji, hiragana or katacana…all of them being very hard for a foreigner to read.  It is just easier to go by the little photos on the package, and if there is no photos, well then you are out of luck. A small but rewarding triumph is coming home with a grocery bag full of new things and they all taste good.  The biggest fail for me so far was me thinking a package was kimchi and it was really squid guts! Surprisingly the flavour was quite good, but the texture was too similar to rubber that I couldn’t eat the whole package. I also went to buy coconut milk and soy milk because I am lactose intolerant and I ended up getting coffee flavoured soy milk and coconut milk that tasted like pina colada mix.  A few of the biggest wins – that could easily been fails - have been picked vegetables, umeboshi (salty/sour plums), naato (fermented soy beans) and bento!

Bento (弁当) is a very popular single portion take-out or packed meal.  I am in love with the widely accessible onigiri which is a stuffed rice ball shaped into a triangle and wrapped in nori (seaweed paper) a fancy way of saying a Japanese rice sandwich.  While the Japanese typically fills the onigiri with a salty ingredient like pickled vegetables, salty/sour plums, sea vegetables or salty fish, I prefer a more western spin of sustainable salmon with mayonnaise or avocado, almond butter and jam or even leftovers like chicken, curry or slated edamame. The trick to these little rice balls when you buy them from the store is opening them!  It’s quite ingenious actually – the nori doesn’t touch the rice in the packaging until you open it, so it doesn’t get soggy.  It takes a few times of opening the little suckers to finally get it. These onigiri bento snacks are sold in every corner store and grocery store!  So in the spirit of trying new things I decided to make my own.

Find this and other great articles in the Fernie Fix Magazine!

Onigiri – Japanese Rice Sandwiches

  • 1 cup brown or white sushi rice, rinsed and cooked to manufactures instructions
  • 2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar (containing mother) or rice vinegar
  • ½ Tbsp organic cane sugar or coconut sugar
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • Nori sheets (seaweed paper), cut into long rectangular pieces.

Your choice of fillings:

  • Salmon & avocado/mayo
  • Almond butter & jam
  • Salted edamame beans
  • Any sandwich fillings!
  1. Prepare sushi rice by following manufactures instructions. (If you want to use short grain brown rice in a rice cooker use 3 parts water to 1 part rice.)
  2. Whisk the vinegar, sugar and salt in a bowl.  Once rice is prepared drizzle vinegar mixture over rice while hot and stir with a wooden or plastic spatula (important: do not use metal, it will react with the rice).
  3. Prepare your fillings.
  4. Fill another small bowl with water.
  5. Dip your hands into the water, coating them so they don’t stick to the rice.
  6. Take a handful of rice and form into a bowl like shape.  Take 2 Tbsp of your filling and place into the rice bowl. Dip your hands again in the water bowl and place another small bit of rice on top of the filling to seal it shut.
  7. Shape rice into a triangle or whatever shape you would like. You can sprinkle the outside with sesame seeds or hemp seeds.
  8. If you are going to eat them right away, wrap the outside with a long rectangle piece of nori.  If you are packing these for lunch, wrap the rice triangle with plastic wrap and then wrap with nori when you are ready to eat them.
  9. These also freeze very well! Enjoy!