Tofu Scallion Brown Rice Onigiri
Following my husband’s recent solo visit to Tokyo I thought, what fun to match it up with a recipe.
Many aspects of Japanese culture could be summarized as a balance of precision and minimalism. The approach to food is a delicious study of these contrasts. Traditional Japanese cuisine offers dishes that are beautiful and complex yet healthy and practical, exemplifying an effortlessly natural simplicity of diverse ingredients.
Onigiri — pronounced oh-knee-gree — are portable little bundles of rice often eaten as a snack or light lunch on-the-hoof. Nigiri means “to squeeze,” which is how onigiri are formed into the classic triangles, balls or cylinders — either by hand or with the help of shaped molds.
Some onigiri are filled with tasty surprises, like sashimi-grade tuna, salmon roe, avocado, or umeboshi (Japanese sour salted plums). Some have a strip of nori (dried seaweed) at the base to keep your hands free from the sticky rice, and some are wrapped entirely in nori or fresh shiso leaves. Other onigiri are just rice, but with seasonings mixed in prior to shaping or sprinkled on top after, perhaps furikake (a mixture of sesame seeds, nori and other seasonings), sakebushi (dried salmon flakes), or yukari (red shiso powder).
Made almost exclusively with short-grain white sushi rice, I dangerously buck the trend in favor of nutty, chewy, more nutrient-dense brown rice. If you can find Japanese sushi-style brown rice, all the better, but I’ve had no problems with the plain short-grain variety. Do steer clear of long-grain, however, which will not hold together.
These onigiri have a simple filling of tofu + slivers of fresh scallion, with a garnish of toasted black sesame seeds. I like mine on the smaller side, shaped into pyramids (like a favorite Christmas treat) as opposed to the traditional flat triangles or basic spheres. Though it looks difficult, I promise that with a bit of patience, shaping is really quite easy and fun to do. (Details in the recipe below + a helpful photo tutorial here.)
What’s in it for me?
With the outer layers of bran intact, brown rice is a richer source of nutrients than plain white rice. A 1/2-cup serving is rich in the trace mineral manganese (more than 50% of your DV), a good source of magnesium, and offers smaller amounts of phosphorous, plus most of the B vitamins, predominantly thiamin (B1), niacin (B3) + B6. This serving of brown rice also provides about 7% of your daily fiber, 3% of your iron + 2 g protein for only about 110 calories. Like all varieties of rice, brown rice is gluten-free.
For less than 100 calories and 0 mg cholesterol per 3-ounce serving, tofu is a complete plant-based protein ranging from roughly 6 to 10 g per serving, depending on the method of processing and style. Rich in calcium, antioxidant selenium and manganese, tofu is a good source of iron, magnesium and zinc, plus mono- and poly-unsaturated fats for heart and brain health. Tofu also a source of the B-vitamin folate and choline — two nutrients that offer some protection from development of birth defects of in a developing fetus. (Learn more about tofu nutrition.)
Scallions, a relative of leeks, shallots, chives and garlic, provide a mildly sweet onion-y flavor, and are source of the mineral sulfur required to synthesize the antioxidant glutathione — critical in controlling inflammation and helping your immune system fight infections.
An excellent source of iron and calcium, black sesame seeds have a toasty and smoky flavor. All colors of sesame seed also contain coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) — an antioxidant involved in energy production that may also play roles in treating high blood pressure and cholesterol, eye diseases, asthma, and possibly Alzheimer’s.
Light yet satisfying, they are perfectly tote-able as a snack or meal for school, in the car, on a picnic, walking to work, at a sports practice or, say, on a plane home from Tokyo. Onigiri are delightful at home as well, with a heartier protein, perhaps crispy-skin fish, poached chicken or hiyayakko (Japanese cold tofu), and a light side like cucumber salad or steamed veg.
Whatever the shape, the filling, the wrapping, the topping, even the style of rice, the keys to good onigiri are balance and simplicity. A classically Japanese dish that I hope some day to try at its origin!
Tell me… What do you order at Japanese restaurants?
- FOR THE RICE
- 1 cup sushi-style or regular short-grain brown rice (see HGN Notes)
- 2 cups water
- 1/4 tsp salt
- FOR THE ONIGIRI
- 4 oz firm or extra-firm tofu, cut into small cubes (about 1-cm each), raw or cooked
- 1/4 cup thinly sliced scallions (green onions) or chives
- 2 Tbsp sesame seeds -- black, white or a mixture, to garnish (optional)
- TO COOK THE BROWN RICE:
- In a medium-sized saucepan, combine the rice with 2 cups water, and stir in the salt. Bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to as low as it goes, cover and simmer 35 to 45 minutes, until the water is absorbed. Remove the pan from the heat, allowing the rice to sit, covered, for about 5 minutes to cool briefly.
- TO MAKE THE ONIGIRI:
- While the rice cooks, fill a small bowl with water, and drape another small bowl or saucer with plastic wrap; set aside.
- When the rice is still warm but cool enough to handle, sprinkle or spritz the plastic wrap-lined bowl with a bit of the water. Spoon in about 1/3 cup of the warm rice. Dip a finger into the water and use it to form a small indentation in the center of the rice. If filling, spoon about 1 to 2 tsp of your desired filling ingredient(s) into the indentation. Mine were filled with 1 to 2 small cubes of tofu and a few slices of scallion. (If you have leftover tofu at the end, serve alongside the onigiri, or save for another use.)
- Gather up the edges of the plastic wrap around the rice (this will naturally cover the fillings with rice), and pull together at the top, twisting tightly to form the rice into a ball. Carefully remove the plastic wrap. At this point you can leave the onigiri in the ball shape or, if desired, form it into a pyramidal/flat triangular shape. To form the onigiri, wet your hands, and squeeze and pinch the rice ball into a pyramid/flat triangle. Transfer to a serving platter or parchment lined container. Repeat with the remaining rice, and fillings, if using. You should end up with about 9 or so onigiri, roughly the size of a large golf ball. (If while making the first one you find that the rice is not sticky enough to hold together, use a rubber spatula to press and fold the remaining rice about 10 times in the pan to make it more workable and sticky.)
- Onigiri can be enjoyed immediately while still warm, at room temperature, or cold from the refrigerator. Serve plain, sprinkled with sesame seeds, or with a dipping sauce of your liking (see HGN Notes for two simple recipe ideas). Store leftovers in an airtight, parchment-lined container, refrigerated up to 4 days, or frozen up to 2 months.
Onigiri are typically served on their own. You can definitely offer a dipping sauce, if you like, though! Use the spicy-ginger-soy sauce from my recipe for hiyayakko -- Japanese cold tofu: https://buff.ly/2zjX4IL.
Alternatively, you can make a simple seasoned tamari sauce by mixing together 6 Tbsp tamari (or soy sauce) + juice of 1/2 lemon (or lime) + 1 tsp sesame oil + 1 tsp grated ginger.
+ Instead of the tofu and scallions, try filling your onigiri with little pieces of avocado, sashimi-grade tuna (I've done canned!), cooked shrimp or salmon, leftover cooked meats, cucumber, edamame, other cooked or raw veg, or the traditional umeboshi (sour salted plums). I even saw one recipe for onigiri stuffed with peanut butter! You can also go without a filling, of course.
+ Some onigiri instead flavor the rice before shaping, or sprinkle seasonings on top after shaping -- common ingredients for this are toasted black sesame seeds, sakebushi (dried salmon flakes), yukari (red shiso powder), or furikake [a mixture of sesame seeds, nori (dried seaweed), bonito flakes and other seasonings].
+ Others feature a wrapping of nori -- either a simple rectangular strip on the bottom, or the shaped onigiri wrapped entirely like a present.
+ Brown the outsides of your shaped onigiri in a hot skillet or griddle to make yaki onigiri. Check out this tutorial from La Fuji Mama: https://buff.ly/2z3jBXj.
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