In Japanese grocery stores, the triangular, nori-wrapped rice balls known as onigiri or omusubi catch your eye like presents, waiting to reveal the treat at their core: salted salmon, pickled ume, or maybe shrimp tempura. They look like a form of sushi, but they’re made with plain rice, which the salty filling helps preserve (versus vinegar-seasoned sushi rice, which helps preserve fish). This two-buck picnic staple is no less welcome now than in old Japan, when Samurai toted them for lunch—and it’s healthy, too, although I would like to see someone make them with brown rice (RIP Oms/b in Manhattan, which had so many wonderful varieties).
Above and below photos by Leslie-Anne Brill
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A selection of rice balls at Daido in White Plains
Ready to pull off the wrapper and dig in? Not so fast, my friend. If you’ve never done this, you’re about to discover the genius Japanese packaging that keeps the crisp nori separate from the moist rice until you’re ready to rumble. Note the instructions on the wrapper (better yet, watch the video at the bottom of this page). The trick (once you pull the tab, which goes right into the price label) is to slither the plastic out from around the rice while keeping the whole thing intact. I think I finally know what I’ve been doing wrong: you’re supposed to pull it open one side at a time, but I’ve been doing both together (expecting some sort of origami “aha” moment).
Read the instructions first!
By the way, these are not complicated to make, and the process is pretty cool. Roll the rice into a ball between your damp hands and wrap with seaweed. Or buy nori sheets already encased in onigiri wrappers, and a triangular rice mold to achieve a uniform shape.
Ready to go shopping? Here are a few regional places to check out:
Daido, White Plains
When I called this well-stocked, user-friendly Japanese grocery to ask if they had rice balls, they asked, “Are you coming soon? They run out quickly.” Get there by midday for the largest selection of flavors I’ve seen: kelp, salmon with salmon roe, pickled ume, eel, and spicy tuna, to name a few. As a rule, don’t expect a large amount of filling in rice balls—just enough to add a third dimension to this three-pointed treat.
Speaking of portable deliciousness, if you get there at the right time, baked sweet potatoes (a common Asian street food), $2.99 each, sit in a basket in front of an oven, with approximate “bake times” posted. You could buy and roast several yourself for the price, but there they are, right in front of you, and they’re the best sweet potatoes you’ve ever tasted (just make sure to peel them—the peel is kind of gritty). We’ll gladly fall for that. And let’s not forget their French cream puffs, available Sundays only.
522 Mamaroneck Ave
(914) 683-6735; daidomarket.com
H Mart, Hartsdale
I eagerly arrived at this Korean American chain superstore before they’d set out their rice balls for the day, but a chef in the prepared-foods section offered to make them to order, filled with California roll ingredients (a hybrid!). My excitement faded as I realized that the ingredients neither came together as a California roll nor had the savory oomph of most rice balls, but a variety of other flavors such as chicken teriyaki are available at different times.
Meanwhile—speaking again of yummy portable foods—may I interest you in a $1 steamed chestnut, red bean, or vegetable bun? You’ll find them at the food court, right at the cash register.
371 N Central Ave
(914) 448-8888; hmart.com
Shrimp tempura rice balls with the tails sticking out are the winner at this small but product-packed Japanese store—if you’re lucky, you’ll find them slightly warm. The rice is especially good here. Other flavors include salmon, tuna mayo, and chicken teriyaki; the selection is small, so get there early. This and a bottle of Ito En golden oolong tea will take you far.
For more adventures in shaped rice, they even sell an outrageous “sushi cake” perfect for your next birthday.
283 Halstead Ave
(914) 835-4390; facebook.com/pages/Oishinbo/458312087570742