What is a popular Japanese food that Japanese people love to eat when they are a bit hungry or when they need a quick lunch? Sushi? Soba? No! Rice balls! Rice balls are a must have food for the Japanese and it definitely wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that there are no Japanese living in Japan that have never eaten a rice ball in their lifetime.
The first rice balls in Japan were found to be eaten during the Yayoi period (500 BC to 300 AD). They were made by mixing water and rice but made the same way: making it into a ball with your hands. The form of the rice balls we have now first appeared as a wartime food. They were first eaten only by warriors. However, they became more popular among farmers as a quick meal and were also served when welcoming guests. The word Onigiri (rice balls) comes from the word Nigiru (to hold) in Japanese.
Various rice balls
Rice balls are definitely one of the most popular items that are sold in Japanese convenience stores. As you walk into the obento (lunch box and take-outs) area, the first thing you will see is a whole shelf full of rice balls. The prices start from JPY100, and there are so many that it is difficult to choose the one you want to eat. Here are 10 most popular rice ball fillings at Seven-Eleven.
01. Shake (salmon)
02. Tarako (red roe)
03. Tuna and mayonnaise
04. Mentaiko (cod ovum)
05. Konbu (kelp) 6. Ume (pickled plum)
07. Katsuo/Okaka (dried bonito)
08. Takikomi Gohan (mixed rice)
09. Yaki Onigiri (toasted rice balls)
10. Tenmusu (tempura)
Other interesting fillings are, Natto (fermented beans), Kimchi (Kimchee), Cheese and bacon, Shirasu (dried young sardines), Ikura (salmon roe), Takana (Japanese pepper leaf), Miso-chashu (fermented soybean paste with roast pork) etc.
You may have heard some of them for the first time and they may sound unique or rather strange. However, go for it! You can find a lot more flavors anywhere in Japan! There are even stores in Japan that specialize in rice balls. In such stores there are nearly 40 different varieties of filled rice balls. Trying as many rice balls as you can is always recommended. I hope you find your favorite rice ball!