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Onigiri - How To Make Rice Balls

Another Westernized Asian food, sweetened onigiri.

There are hundreds of varieties of rice balls, but they are easy to make. Simply squeeze damp rice in your hands until it sticks, and you have a rice ball. Tadaa!

But plain rice is boring! I make sweet, flavored onigiri for dessert, and occasionally a spicy chicken rice ball for quick lunches.

You'll need 1 cup of steamed short-grain rice (see Sushi 101 for instructions on steaming rice on a stove top,) sugar, and the flavoring of your choice. For the recipe I'll be using poppy seeds.

It also helps to have an onigiri maker, a small plastic mold. You *can* use your hands, but it's sticky and messy, and the onigiri molds come in all sorts of fun shapes. Mine makes three balls at a time, in heart, star, and teddy bear shapes.

1 c steamed sticky rice, damp but not dripping
1/4 c sugar
3 tbsp poppy seeds

Using a chop/fold motion, add the sugar and poppy seeds slowly to the rice, mix well. It won't hurt your onigiri if you smash the rice, but it looks nicer if you have intact grains.

The residual water in the rice will dissolve the sugar and help to spread it evenly, but this also makes the rice even stickier. Have a damp towel on hand to keep yourself clean.

Fill your mold, or take a small handful, and squeeze tightly. Gently place on a flat plate and leave undisturbed for at least 15 minutes. This drying time will help to keep the rice balls together. That's it!

Another flavoring I use often is 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp nutmeg, and 1/2 tsp clove. You can also use diced cherries and a tiny bit of cherry juice, or peaches, or strawberries.

For my spicy chicken onigiri, I add a little powdered ginger, a bit of powdered garlic, salt, and a tiny amount of cayenne pepper to the rice while I'm boiling it, and let the spices soak in while it steams. Sometimes I also substitute 1/2 cup of chicken stock for the same amount of water. Dice a baked chicken breast, and mix it in with the steamed rice. Form and let rest.

You can also grill onigiri, which makes it easier to pack for lunches or picnics... less mess. Simply form the rice balls as normal, then bring a skillet to medium heat. Toss in a little butter to keep the rice from sticking, and gently place the ball in the skillet. Carefully grill each side until lightly golden. The best shapes for grilled onigiri are round, to roll on the grill, or a flat triangle, which flips easily.

Onigiri are great for using up leftovers, or making meats and veggies stretch farther. One cup of rice, and one chicken breast, combined with spices and formed into 2" onigiri will make roughly 20 rice balls. Three small rice balls fill me up, and my husband usually scarfs down four or five.

I'll put up suggestions for finding the supplies you'll need soon.