They’ve been called sushi sandwiches, rice sando or sushi burrito, but in Japan, where these sandwiches are from, they’re named onigirazu.
They are derived from onigiri, the rice balls stuffed with the likes of salted salmon, pickled plum or bonito flakes. “Translated in English, onigiri means ‘moulding rice with hands’, but with onigirazu, it means ‘rice that isn’t moulded’,” says Asako Miura, co-owner of Melbourne's Ima Project Cafe. “Onigirazu is a modern version of onigiri, a sandwich version of onigiri.”
It first had its moment in the early 1990s, when it appeared in the manga Cooking Papa, a series about a father who secretly likes to cook for his family. In the comic, the father spreads a layer of rice on a sheet of nori seaweed, adds a bunch of fillings and another layer of rice, before folding the parcel and slicing it in two. “I saw my wife throwing the dish together in a rush when our kid was small, and I drew them in manga and named them onigirazu,” Cooking Papa author Tochi Ueyama told The Japan Times.
In Japan, you can sometimes find onigirazu in konbini (convenience stores), but it’s most often made at home, for breakfast, lunch or a snack.
The sandwich started making the rounds again in 2014 after being featured on the popular Japanese recipe sharing site Cookpad, before being crowned "Dish of the Year" by the Gurunavi Research Institute in 2015. “At a time when many in Japan have come to see the modern trend away from rice as troubling, this new idea has expanded the possibilities of the traditional staple, re-establishing an awareness of just how essential rice is to Japanese people,” stated the organisation in a press release.
Reiji Honour of Melbourne's Hibiki has had onigirazu on his menu since opening the venue in Camberwell three years ago: “I wanted to provide an alternative takeaway option for office workers, something a bit iconic. The standard onigiri was the initial plan, but I was looking for something with a bit of pizzazz, something new and eye-catching for the people here.”
Once the onigirazu is cut, the fillings are on full display. “It’s a beautiful, colourful concept,” says Honour. “It’s crazy, it sells like hotcakes.”
Hibiki currently has an egg and haloumi onigirazu, as well as others with chicken katsu, smoked salmon, teriyaki mushroom, and kimchi and tofu.
“The world is your oyster when it comes to coming up with combinations,” says Honour. “Good-grade seaweed is very important, and it’s always good to have it a little bit wet. We do standard sushi rice with yukari, a salted shiso flavouring that’s purple. That's always been a tradition; it’s something my mum used to make for me. She would flavour her onigiri with salted shiso. It adds more to the rice, it gives it that extra level.”
Since August, it's also been possible to get his onigirazu next door at Future – his new shop inspired by Japanese konbini.
“The world is your oyster when it comes to coming up with combinations.”
A few suburbs away, in Carlton, Ima Project Cafe sometimes serves onigirazu as a takeaway lockdown special. “It was slow to start when people were discovering them, but it became popular over the last two lockdowns – everyone was asking for it,” says Miura.
Their signature onigirazu is made with “fatty, tasty bits” of hibachi-grilled salmon and crunchy greens.
Like Honour, she encourages home cooks to get creative with fillings: “Find anything in the fridge and put it inside. Obviously, not anything, but you can fry chicken or cook some oyster mushroom with butter and soy. James [Spinks, chef and co-owner at Ima Project Cafe] always likes to add a crunchy element and play with texture.”
While it’s possible to use different types of rice, you’ll get the best results with a good quality Japanese shortgrain rice that has been seasoned. “James says that filling is secondary, rice is the key,” Miura says.
Hibiki's egg and haloumi onigirazu by Reiji Honour
To make onigirazu, it helps to have a shamoji (rice paddle), leftover rice and a creative mind. But you can also improvise with uncooked rice and some tablespoons.
- 1 cup uncooked white shortgrain rice (or roughly 2 cups leftover cooked rice, briefly microwaved.)
- 1 tsp olive oil
- 1 egg
- 1 haloumi slice
- 1 tsp yukari (shiso seasoning)
- 1 nori seaweed sheet
- 6 baby spinach leaves
- 1 tomato slice
- 1 tbsp kewpie mayonaise
- 1 tsp huy fong sriracha
- Shichimi, to garnish
- If using uncooked rice, wash the rice 3 times or until the water is clear.
- Add 1½ cups of water to the 1 cup of rice and cook in the rice cooker (for 20 to 30 minutes, depending on your rice cooker). If you don't have a rice cooker, try this method instead.
- While the rice is cooking, heat the oil in a small frying pan over medium heat. Add the haloumi and egg and fry them for 3-4 minutes or until haloumi is browned on each side and the egg is cooked to your liking. Turn off heat and set aside.
- Once the rice is cooked, mix roughly 2-3 shamoji scoops of rice with the yukari seasoning in a small bowl (if you don't have a rice paddle, you can use 3tbsp of rice instead). Mix well, until the rice gains a prominent purple shade.
- Lay the seaweed sheet and sprinkle a small amount of water on the seaweed to moisten the nori (take care not to add too much water, as it can cause the seaweed to break or disintegrate).
- Place half the rice in the centre of the seaweed and spread it out, so the rice is roughly 10cm in diameter.
- Place the spinach first, followed by the sliced tomato, grilled haloumi and fried egg.
- Place both mayonnaise and sriracha sauces on top.
- Carefully place the remaining rice on top of the ingredients and firmly press the rice into position.
- Fold one corner of the seaweed over the rice, and repeat with the opposite corner.
- Fold the last 2 remaining corners of the seaweed and wrap firmly around the rice, so it's completely covered.
- Flip the onigirazu over, so the flat side is facing up.
- Rest for 1 minute, so the onigirazu can set.
- Slice in half with a sharp or serrated knife and garnish with shichimi. Enjoy and itadakimasu!
• If you have leftover white rice, use it! Give it a quick zap in the microwave to bring out the best in the rice. Yukari is a shiso salt seasoning that's sold at independent Japanese grocers or Daiso outlets. If not available, use a sprinkle of salt or roasted sesame seeds instead. Shichimi is a Japanese seven-spice seasoning mix, available at Asian grocers and select supermarkets.
Onigirazu is basically a sushi sandwich. It's very, very simple and a favourite for my children's lunchboxes.
Everything you love about a sushi roll, only it’s a sandwich. Layers of spicy tuna, pickled radish and avocado is sandwiched with a mix of brown rice, quinoa and wild rice and wrapped in nori sheets. These are ideal for shaking up your midweek lunchboxes.
Onigiri are best eaten on the day they are made, however, leftovers are great pan-fried the next day. Avoid wrapping the rice in the nori too early or it will become soggy. This doesn’t affect the flavour though, and, in fact, triggers memories for many Japanese people of their packed school lunches of these rice balls.