⯆ JUMP TO RECIPE
Sushi rice, pickles and miso paste give a completely magical result: Japanese grilled rice balls, yaki onigiri.
There’s no two ways about it: this is cooked sushi. ‘Onigiri’ means ‘rice ball’ but it’s an understatement of the universe. Rice it is, but prepared so you can grab it in your hand and snack on like a cake, whether it is wrapped in a sheet of nori seaweed or not; whether it’s filled with pickles or it isn’t; whether it’s fried or grilled or left au naturel. Yaki is the grilled version.
I was massively looking forward to making my onigiri because everything about it is just fascinating to my European taste buds: the sushi rice, the pickles, miso glaze and the fact that you eat rice with your fingers. I don’t make sushi at home because I’m too clumsy and impatient to faff about with mats, nori sheets and cutting dainty rolls, but onigiri is entirely within my realm of capabilities. And anything in the world that involves crispy rice is a winner for me.
I don’t understand rice, naturally – my ethnic affinity is with potatoes and cabbage – so it always amazes me how the same grain/vegetable/plant can take on such different guises: from paella to onigiri. Sushi rice is completely magical because despite having all the starches rinsed out of it, it’s sticky and mouldable when cooked. Your kids could use it as playdoh. You could use it to fill cracks in the wall.
The original recipe from NY Times Cooking uses dried shiitake mushrooms for the pickles but I can find fresh ones more easily. Plus I threw in a few strands of carrot and cucumber in as well, for variety. I fancy experimenting more: prawn filling would go there nicely in my view, if the Chinese-Japanese fusion should not offend either nation. I might venture further afield and season the rice with dill, Persian style, and leave it unstuffed. I want to invert the (traditionally used, though I didn’t) nori sheet wrapping and stick the seaweed or cooked samphire inside. I’m getting excited just writing about all these options so watch this space!
yaki onigiriServings: makes 6 – 8 onigiriTime: 1 hour plus making pickles
- For the pickles:
- 5 shiitake mushrooms
- 4 radishes
- 2 small carrots
- 1 mini cucumber
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp sugar
- 100ml (scant ½ cup) tamari or light soy sauce
- 60ml (¼ cup) mirin or dry sherry
- 2 tbsp. rice vinegar
- a pinch of mild chilli flakes (Japanese or ancho)
- a pinch of red pepper flakes
- For the onigiri:
- 200g (1 cup) sushi rice
- 280ml (1 cup plus 2 tbsp.) water
- a little oil to brush the baking tray
- For the glaze:
- 2 tbsp. white miso paste
- 1 tbsp. sesame oil
- 2 tsp mirin or dry sherry
- 2 tsp caster sugar
- 2 tsp sake (or water)
- ½ tsp rice vinegar
- sesame seeds, for sprinkling
1. To make the pickles, slice the mushrooms thinly and cut the other vegetables into matchsticks. Toss them with the salt and sugar and leave on a sieve set over a bowl to draw moisture, for about 15 minutes.
2. Mix the soy sauce, mirin, rice vinegar, chilli and red pepper flakes in a cup or a small pan and heat to almost boiling, on the hob or in the microwave. Squeeze moisture from the vegetables, place them in a clean bowl and pour over the hot liquid. Stir and chill for at least 1 hour.
3. Cook the rice: rinse it with cold water several times, swirling the grains, till the water runs almost clear. Drain, place in a saucepan with a fitting lid and add the 280ml water. Bring to the boil stirring once or twice, put the lid on and turn the heat down to medium-low; you should see steam escaping from under the lid. Cook for 15 minutes without lifting the lid. Take the pan off the heat, keep it covered and leave it for 10 minutes or until the rice is not too hot to handle.
4. Meanwhile drain a couple of tablespoons of pickles (the rest can be used just as pickles), squeeze out moisture and chop them finely; you need only a small spoonful for each onigiri.
5. Prepare the glaze: mix all the ingredients except sesame seeds together in a small bowl.
6. Unless you have the onigiri shaping mould, use a plain round pastry cutter (mine was 6cm) and find a glass or tumbler whose bottom fits into it. Prepare a bowl of water for your hands and the tumbler – the rice is very sticky. Brush a baking tray with oil.
7. Place the pastry ring on a flat wet surface, pile a tablespoon of rice into it and press it down with the tumbler. Place a mound of chopped pickles in the middle and top with another tablespoon of rice. Dip the tumbler in the water and press its bottom down on the rice to pack in as densely as you can. Lift the ring and use the tumbler to push onigiri out onto the baking tray. Continue with the rest of the rice, wetting the tumbler, the ring and your hands often.
8. Preheat the grill to medium. Brush the tops of the onigiri with the miso glaze and place the tray under the grill for about 7-10 minutes until browned and crusty. Remove the tray from the grill, flip the onigiri over with a palette knife and brush the other sides. Sprinkle with sesame seeds; white, black or a mix. Return onigiri under the grill and cook for 3-5 minutes until the other side is crisp and deep golden.
9. Remove from the oven, cool down a little and serve with the remaining glaze as dipping sauce – or make some sweet and salty dip by mixing a spoonful of apricot jam with a spoonful of soy sauce.