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Rice balls are the super cute way to get kids to eat healthy

Step aside, cake pops! There's a new spherical treat that's stealing the after-school-snack spotlight, and this one's healthy and easy.
/ Source: TODAY
Matt Armendariz

Step aside, cake pops—there's a new spherical treat that's ready to steal the after-school-snack spotlight, and this one's healthy and easy to make. While they haven't achieved the status in the US of Japanese foods like ramen and sushi, onigiri—handmade rice balls with various fillings and add-ins—are "the most popular food in Japan," says Sonoko Sakai, a cooking teacher, writer, film producer and the author of the new cookbook “Rice Craft." Rice balls are a key component of bento boxes and a staple for kids and adults alike that can be eaten for lunch, a snack, dinner or even breakfast. "It's a fast food but it's also a healthy comfort food," says Sakai. "There's no other snack in the world like that."

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Onigiri which also go by "omusubi," are close relatives to nigiri sushi, and both words mean "to mold," Sakai explains. But, she adds, while sushi is made by chefs, onigiri are made by parents—or by kids themselves at many workshops Sakai teaches. "Anybody can make onigiri, you just mold it with your hands and stuff it with anything," says Sakai. "If it falls apart, just eat it with a fork or with your hands."

Ready to give rice balls a try? Read on for tips and a recipe for Your First Onigiri from “Rice Craft.”

Matt Armendariz

7 rice ball essentials:

1. Rice rules: When buying rice for making onigiri, be sure to purchase sticky rice (also called sushi rice) such as Japonica or Japanese-style medium-grain rice, as these varieties stick together and can be molded, unlike long grain rice. You can, however, mix in small amounts of long grain rice, other grains such as millet or quinoa and even beans when making your onigiri.

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2. Fun with fillings: Traditional onigiri fillings include bonito (shaved fish flakes), pickled plums and fish roe, but Sakai suggests simply raiding your fridge for leftover cooked chicken, fish and vegetables. “Rice Craft” has recipes for onigiri with a huge variety of ingredients, including avocado, sweet potato, salmon (Sakai's favorite), fried chicken, mushrooms, pickled radishes, canned tuna, beef and bacon and eggs. Or instead of savory fillings, go sweet and try something like Sakai's Dried Fruit and Nut "Toast" Onigiri, which is filled with jam, brushed with butter and broiled. She's even added peanut butter to onigiri. You can mix the filling into the rice, stuff it in the middle, or put it on top of the ball, nigiri-style. Just be sure that the filling makes up only 20 percent of the onigiri so that the ball holds together, and steer clear of watery or oily fillings, which can make the onigiri mushy. says Sakai.

3. Subtle seasonings: The key seasoning for onigiri is a bit of salt, and Sakai says the only rule when it comes to other seasonings is to use moderation so you can taste the rice. A few flavorings she suggests include soy sauce, mayonnaise, citrus zest, vinegar and sriracha.

4. Toss in some confetti: Give your onigiri a boost by adding crunch. It can be as simple as one ingredient such as sesame seeds or it can be a blend of various ingredients such as sea salt, seaweed, dried fish and chiles. You can make your own or buy a premade blend.

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5. Successful shaping: When it comes time to make your onigiri, have a bowl of water standing by to moisten your hands so the rice doesn't stick to them, then simply scoop up some rice and mold it into any shape you like. "You can make them in round shapes, triangles, squares—you can make them into cute little faces," suggests Sakai. And don't fret if all your onigiri are different shapes and sizes. "If you have big hands you will make a big onigiri, if you have small hands, you will make a small one, if you have clumsy hands you will make a dented one," says Sakai. "That's the charm of it."

6. Wrap it up: Ongiri are traditionally wrapped with a piece of nori seaweed. If you're making your onigiri ahead, Sakai suggests waiting till just before serving to add the nori so it doesn't get soggy. Not a fan of seaweed or just want to try something new? Sakai says you can use leafy greens like Swiss chard, rice paper wrappers or even a slice of meat.

7. Make it a meal: While onigiri are tasty on their own, to make a more complete meal, Sakai likes to add the traditional accompaniments of miso soup and pickles.