August 4, 2011

Japanify: Yaki Onigiri (Grilled Rice Balls)

by Yoko Kumano


Despite being in the U.S. for nearly 30+ years, Japanese cuisine instantaneously conjures up the word “raw.” Sushi has proved itself the winner despite criticism ranging from “this is unsanitary,” to, “I am ingesting unsafe levels of mercury,” to, “This is just plain gross, slimy and/or stinky.” Japanese food and sushi have virtually become synonymous in the States, so it is interesting to see how diners are accepting another type of Japanese food that is almost the exact opposite of raw fish.

You’ve come a long way, sushi… but there’s a new dawg in town.

Yakimono or “grilled foods” in Japan are cooked quickly against high heat and traditionally grilled upon bincho-tan (white charcoal). Bincho charcoal is extra special because it burns at a lower temperature than regular charcoal but lasts longer.

Yakimono includes a wide variety of food including, yakitori (grilled chicken), yakiniku (grilled meats), yakisoba (grilled noodles) and yakizakana (grilled fish). Tokyo has hundreds of eateries and stalls dedicated to each type of grilled cuisine. If one thinks that the main cuisine of Japan is sushi, s/he will be surprised to arrive in the middle of Tokyo and see how many restaurants are emitting plumes of smoke.

Yakimono calls for the usual Japanese ingredient suspects: dashi, shoyu, mirin, miso, sugar and sake with appearances by ginger, wasabi and sudachi (I call it the Japanese lime).

I don’t own a fancy bincho-tan grill contraption, but I do own an electric grill by Zojirushi. That’s where I do all of my grilling. It’s a godsend for when I don’t feel like simmering fish or veggies, instead I can just throw whole fish or coins of sweet potato onto the grill and wait for the “ding!” of my handy griller.

This week I introduce my recipe for yaki-onigiri, or grilled rice balls. I’ve talked about onigiri last year and I am glad that Yamahomo wrote a post on yakimono just last month which acts as an appropriate (and hilarious) backdrop for my post today.


Tare (sauce)
2 tbsp Soy sauce
1.5 tbsp Mirin
1.5 tbsp Butter (melted, but not hot)

2 cups of Freshly steamed white rice
1 cup Water (for using on hands) in a bowl
1 tbsp Salt (for using on hands) in a bowl
1 tbsp Aonori (optional)
1 tbsp Roasted sesame seeds (optional)

Clockwise from top right: sesame seeds, water, rice, salt, aonori


1. Cook rice. Let it cool slightly so you don’t burn your hands, but don’t let it cool to room temperature.

2. Mix aonori and sesame seeds into the rice. If you don’t have these things, you can leave the rice as is.


3. Mix soy sauce and mirin into a small bowl. This is your tare (sauce).

4. Melt the butter (I put my chunk of butter in the microwave for 40 seconds on defrost).

5. Prepare a bowl of water (about a cup). Prepare a small bowl with about a tablespoon on salt in it.

6. Wet your hands with the water in the bowl and apply your hands liberally with salt.

7. Shape the onigiri with about 2/3 cup of steamed rice (more directions here). I like my onigiri pretty small and flat so they cook faster and have more crispy surface area.

Melted butter, tare and onigiri.

8. Once all of the onigiri are shaped, they are ready to be slathered with tare and butter. I brushed each side with tare first then butter.

9. Place onigiri on grill* and slather some more tare and butter if you feel like it. If there’s room, put some shishamo (smelt) or any fish on the grill too.


*A BBQ grill works great too. I have also seen people use a pan to pan-fry their “yaki” onigiri. If you use a pan, add a pad of unmelted butter to the pan and then place the onigiri on the pan, then add the tare.

10. My onigiri are pretty small (about 2.5 inches from each edge) so they cooked quite quickly in a little less than 10 minutes.


11. Serve while they are piping hot and have maximum crunch on the outside and hot and fluffy on the inside.


Explore Japanese cuisine beyond the realm of “raw” and you will be rewarded generously.


There is nothing like a crispy hot yaki onigiri to accompany your favorite summertime alcoholic beverage.


  • Yamahomo
    Posted August 4, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    I went to a Japanese grilling demo, and according to the chef, 1. make onigiri, 2. brush the grill with oil, and no grease on onigiri, 3. grill them as is, 4. once it gets burn marks, brush with soy mix (toward the end). This way, inside is hot and outside is crisp.

  • yoko
    Posted August 4, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    Thanks for the clarification Yama. I will try that next time. I can’t help buttering it up before it hits the grill though. Sooo glistening and delicious.

  • Posted August 4, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    makes me want to get an electric grill :)

  • Yamahomo
    Posted August 4, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    wen, you can totally use non-stick pan to make yaki onigiri.

  • Tomo
    Posted August 5, 2011 at 1:04 am

    I have never seen butter but that sounds amazing. My mom & dad have a yaki onigiri maker, it’s basically like a Japanified Foreman Grill :)

  • Yoko
    Posted August 5, 2011 at 2:56 am

    I remember that your mom made amazing onigiri when we were kids. I thought she used butter too. Was I mistaken? I actually made my recipe based on the hazy details I have of the BBQs that your mom and dad had.

  • Posted August 7, 2011 at 12:10 am

    Those look so yummy – especially grilled! I love how golden they get!

  • chungy
    Posted August 8, 2011 at 6:45 pm

    …and who doesn’t love toasty, warm, golden ballz (or triangles…)??!

  • Yoko
    Posted August 8, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    “ballz” sounds more appropriate in this context.

  • Posted August 10, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    I hate when people associate Japanese food with just sushi – it’s posts like these that I love! Exposing beautiful Japanese food – these sound amazing!

  • Posted August 20, 2011 at 8:55 pm



  • Posted April 7, 2012 at 1:47 am

    I love eating Onigiri, especially yaki onigiri! Thanks for sharing this recipe!

  • Teteii Tochhawng
    Posted June 29, 2012 at 11:07 pm

    Thank you very much for sharing the yaki onigiri recipe. I had a lovely meal at a Japanese restaurant last night here in Delhi and was trawling the net to figure out what onigiri I ordered when I came across your site. I hope you have a great time in India

  • yoko
    Posted July 2, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    Your welcome! I am glad you enjoyed the recipe. I did have a GREAT time in Delhi and Darjeeling. Please stay tuned for more on that trip. I post on Thursdays. Check back!

  • Chris Nixon
    Posted July 10, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    So I tried this recipe, an lucky I chose the frying pan method because I ended up with fried rice. They all fell apart. What could cause that? Wrong type of rice perhaps? I used long grain white rice.

  • yoko
    Posted July 10, 2015 at 3:24 pm

    Hi Chris,
    Oh no! I’m sorry. Yes, you have to use Japanese short grain rice or else the balls will fall apart. You must also make sure to pack the onigiri tight.
    Good luck!

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