THE ONIGIRI FIELD GUIDE: A Comprehensive Guide to Eating Convenience Store Onigiri
AKA, another article literally NO ONE asked for, but I wrote anyways.
I was in Japan for the last week and a half, and let me tell you, I ate a crazy amount of onigiri.
What is Onigiri?
Onigiri, also known as Omusubi, is a type of Japanese rice ball formed into triangular or cylindrical shapes and wrapped in nori, or roasted seaweed. They are often filled with savory ingredients such as pickled plum, marinated seaweed, salmon, or other ingredients. Onigiri are extremely popular in Japan, and can be found anywhere from restaurants, train stations, and convenience stores. Especially convenience stores.
I found myself easily walking 7–12 miles a day (which is 7–12 times more than I walk normally), and as a result, found myself constantly hungry. With how much money I was already spending on my trip, I couldn’t afford to keep eating out. Thank god for conbini.
What is a Conbini?
Conbini, or Convenience Stores, are plentiful in Japan. You can find one every couple blocks — sometimes three or four every block. Three of the most common ones are 7–11 (or Seven Holdings), Family Mart, and Lawson. Of the three, 7–11 is the largest (and arguably best). All of them not only sell a variety of cold and hot drinks, but also cold and hot food as well, along with a huge assortment of sundries, instant-type food like instant ramen and yakisoba, and daily goods like umbrellas, scarves, mittens, lotion, and basically anything you can think of. They also sell alcohol, magazines, and uh, magazines. You catch my drift.
Onigiri Field Guide
There are over a dozen types of onigiri available at most conbini, ranging from simple wrapped types with one ingredient, grilled types, roll types, types with expensive ingredients like ikura or uni, mixed-rice types, seasoned, etc. For simplicity’s sake, I decided to just eat the simple ones, ranging from 100 yen (approx. 1 USD) to 150 yen (approx 1.50 USD). Here’s a list of the ones I’ve eaten, which I believe is nearly a complete list of most commercially available. I’ll be ranking these onigiri on a 1 to 5 scale, along with some minor notes. And before anyone gets offended, please remember that I am literally just a dude with a laptop who really likes rice balls, not a chef, not a critic. Enjoy:
Salmon, or Sake (pronounced sha-keh), or also called shio-zake (salt salmon), is one of the simpler ones in the bunch. It consists of rice, dried seaweed, and a filling comprised of salted grilled salmon. There’s not that much more to say — it’s fine, it’s tasty. Sometimes you’ll find variants that have salmon and mayo, which I prefer, but overall not bad. People who eat this: normal people, Japanese dads, people who really like salty food.
Overall Score: 3/5 (I would eat this if it were in front of me)
Another really common one, it’s pretty much just grilled tuna and mayo. It’s delicious. One of my more preferred ones, actually. It reminds me vaguely of a Japanese version of a tuna salad sandwich. The sweetness of the mayo and the savoriness of the tuna both work really well with the rice and nori. Overall, delicious. People who eat this: probably younger people, Americans in Japan who miss Tuna Salad Sandwiches, my friend Shogo.
Overall Score: 4/5 (I’d eat a few of these but not want to eat any later)
Pickled Plum (Ume/Umeboshi)
One of the more traditional flavors of onigiri, Ume onigiri can either be paste or an entire pickled plum in the center. I had the plum paste type, and I’ll admit that it wasn’t exactly my favorite flavor. Ume is very sour. Apparently it’s very healthy for you, though. Personally, I wouldn’t intentionally get another one, but I’d still eat it if it were in front of me. People who eat this: old people, maybe.
Overall Score: 2/5 (I would eat this if someone’s parents bought it for me and I wanted to be polite)
Another very traditional flavor, Kombu is essentially kelp seaweed cooked with soy sauce and mirin until soft and marinated. It’s actually really good. No surprise here that marinated seaweed and dried seasoned seaweed work well together. A great choice for vegetarians. People who eat this: people who like dried seaweed snacks
Overall Score: 3.5/5 (I would eat this if someone’s parents bought it for me, but happily)
Yet another traditional flavor, Bonito is dried fish flakes flavored with soy sauce and other seasonings. It has a really strong, salty fish flavor, so people who don’t like the flavor of fish might not like it. It’s a pretty strong flavor overall, and I can’t say I strongly prefer it. People who eat this: people who really like the flavor of fish stock, or maybe fishermen
Overall Score: 3/5 (I would eat this if I wanted to eat fish but for some reason I only had this instead of any other fish)
Shrimp Mayo (Ebi Mayo)
I’m just going to be 100% honest right out of the gate and say that this was my favorite one by far. I ate at least one of each of these onigiri, and on occasion, maybe two or three. Out of the other dozen I ate for sustenance, most of them were ebi mayo. A lot of people are not about the mayo life — normally, I am one of those people. But Kewpie mayo is another deal entirely — the richness and creaminess of mayo and the small-yet-flavorful shrimp go together so well — it almost reminds me of faux-Chinese style walnut shrimp (which I also love, by the way). It has the same appeal as Tuna Mayo, just a little sweeter and not as salty. Like most food in Japan, I thought it was, holistically, too sweet. However, with the saltiness of the nori and the padding of rice, ebi mayo is a perfect, wholesome, bite. People who eat this: 5 year old children, people with the taste of 5 year old children AKA me.
Overall Score: 5/5 (I probably have eaten well over a dozen of these and you can bet that i’d eat a dozen more)
Fried Chicken (Kaarage)
When you think of “tartar sauce” you think — fish and chips (at least, that’s what I think of). You don’t really think, “fried chicken”. So yeah, at first, it’s an interesting and unexpected flavor. Another thing is that the appeal of kaarage, a Japanese fried chicken (think popcorn chicken with a crunchier coating), is that you get it crunchy and hot. The texture of a piece of fried chicken that’s been sitting around in a rice ball for a while is understandably soggy. However, despite the interesting sauce choice and the texture of the outside — this is a winning combination. The tartar sauce, albeit initially weird, does well to hide the greasier flavor of the chicken. The chicken itself sans crunchiness is also extremely juicy and flavorful. It’s like two people that weren’t supposed to date started dating, and somehow became a power couple? People who eat this: children, white people who want to try new foods that are still fried chicken
Overall Score: 4/5 (My doctor says I have to watch my cholesterol so I can’t eat that much fried food, but I’d still eat this)
Gyudon is is a rice bowl composed of rice (wow!) and thinly-sliced beef cooked with sake, mirin, sugar, onions, and other yummy things. It’s one of my favorite things to cook at home and eat in general. Unfortunately, onigiri are served cold at convenience stores, leading to an important discovery — fat congeals when it’s cold (wow!). This leads to a very greasy, chunky texture sometimes, like biting through small chunks of frozen or cold butter. Not the greatest texture or taste in the world. Although overall delicious, this makes me kind of not want to eat it as much. Bonus points for innovation. People who eat this: people who want to eat rice bowl toppings inside the rice instead (wow!)
Overall Score: 3.5/5 (I would still eat this)
Spicy Cod Roe (Mentai)
Mentai is spicy cod roe in a paste-ish form. It’s kind of hard to describe, but visually it looks like it should taste like strawberries. It doesn’t. It tastes like fish, and spice (surprise). Overall, it’s not bad — I do enjoy the taste mildly, but the flavor of the entire thing can be summarized as fish and spice. There’s not a lot of depth (says the guy looking for depth in a 1 dollar rice ball), but it’s definitely not bad. People who eat this: probably people who like mentai. I don’t know. White people probably wouldn’t like this.
Overall Score: 3/5 (spicy fish balls)
Anyways, that’s all for now. I hope you guys learned something. It’s currently 2 AM and I really want to eat some rice balls.
It’s been about two weeks since I got back from Japan, so this article is way overdue. It’s been sitting in my drafts for a week because I keep forgetting to make a gif of me eating onigiri, but here it is, finally.