How to Eat an Onigiri

Onigiri may be Japan’s – if not the world’s – most perfect snack food. They’re healthful, transportable (they fit in the palm of your hand), ubiquitous (available at virtually every supermarket and convenience store) and reasonably priced (from 105 yen, or about $1.25), and until I’ve eaten one, I don’t feel like I’ve actually arrived in Japan.

Mini-onigiri at All Nippon Airways lounge, Tokyo Narita Airport

“Onigiri” is most commonly translated as “rice ball,” never mind that they’re typically triangular. In the middle of the triangle of cooked and barely salted rice is dollop of something delicious: broiled salmon, tuna-mayonnaise, seasoned kelp or spicy cod roe, for example. It’s wrapped in a sheet of nori (the same seaweed used to make sushi). Legend has it that onigiri made ideal trail food for itinerant samurai back in olden times. Nowadays anyone from corporate warriors to anime-watching preschoolers can enjoy them.

Modern packaging has been a boon to lovers of onigiri, thanks to a nifty wrapper that keeps the nori crispy. There’s nothing worse than soggy nori, don’t you think?

Onigiri with spicy tuna filling.

It’s a truism of Japan that there’s a process for everything, and unwrapping an onigiri is no different. It took me years to figure this out, but thanks to this blog, you can enjoy yours the way they’re meant to be enjoyed, in just three easy steps:

1. Pull the tab numbered 1 at the top of the triangle, with the Japanese characters   ひく, pronounced “hiku” and meaning “pull.”

Pull from the top of the package down the center.

2. Pull on the tab marked 2 (for some reason it’s marked “open” in English), until the plastic comes off. Do this slowly or you risk tearing the nori in half.

Onigiri with half of the wrapper removed.

3. Do the same thing with the tab marked 3.

Onigiri out of the package.

And you’re good to go. Say “Itadakimasu!” before you eat. It’s the polite thing to do.