Musubi, sometimes known as onigiri, is probably the most famous Japanese food that you’ve have never heard of.
Hint: it’s not the spicy green horseradish you get with sushi – that’s wasabi. Musubi are actually pressed parcels of rice, stuffed with savoury fillings and wrapped in nori seaweed.
Other than that there’s no additional criteria that defines a musubi. Just like the humble sandwich, it’s how you make them and how you fill them that count. I run a street food stall called Mr Musubi that sells them exclusively, and our salt-cured salmon and braised beef and ginger are by far the most popular.
Musubi varies from sushi because it’s made with plain rice rather than with vinegar, and was designed to be an easy way to carry one’s food. It dates back over 1,000 years, from the time when samurai would carry these snacks to keep them sustained through their travels.
Since then musubi has become part of growing up in Japan, when your loving mother would pack you a bento lunchbox filled with these delicious rice balls, often moulded into a cute animal shape. It’s no overstatement then to say that musubi are the original Japanese comfort food!
Recently a new wave of gourmet musubi restaurants has taken Japan by storm, and we at Mr Musubi have modelled our market stall on them, hand-making them to order while the rice is still hot and fluffy, and adding our own blowtorch touch to them to give them a crisp outside. That’s how we believe they’re best served – fresh just like a Japanese mum would to make.
So if finding great fresh musubi is tough where you live, why not try making it yourself? Here are the steps – all you have to do is decide what to stuff them with.
Step 1: select and wash your rice
The secret to cooking the perfect rice is adding the right amount of water to an exact weight of rice. This ratio depends on many factors, such as your rice cooker, cooking method and even ambient kitchen temperature. We have done a lot of experimentation of our own to come up with the best formula in our kitchen, but in general a good brand of Japonica rice will always get you close – we use Nishiki premium sushi rice.
It’s also important to wash the starch off the rice before you cook. Mix it around with your hands in plenty of water and once the water becomes cloudy, pour it away and repeat until the water remains quite clear. We usually do this process 3-5 times.
Step 2: cook your rice
The perfect rice should be fully cooked through but still springy – imagine like al dente pasta. Your rice cooker should have a measurement on the inside of the pot that tells you how much water to add, but for family-sized quantities there’s a rough adage of using one cup of water for every cup of rice, plus one extra cup “for the pot”. As for brands, we are big fans of Zojirushi rice cookers.
Once the rice has cooked, mix well with a “shamoji” (Japanese rice paddle) – although a spatula will do – to let each individual grain breathe a little.
Step 3: choose your fillings
This is where you can use your imagination. Our braised beef and ginger is probably our most popular flavour, as well as our vegetarian musubi of black hijiki seaweed, shiitake mushrooms and abura-age tofu puffs. You could even use the stuffing from Jamie’s dim sum buns (and the vegan version).
For something quick, tuna mayo is an easy one to make and surprisingly tasty. If you like something a bit more exotic, buy some umeboshi sour pickled plum from your nearest Asian supermarket.
Step 4: prepare your musubi
Once your rice is cooked, it’s time to start making musubi! We suggest 80g rice to 25g of fillings as a start, although in Japan they tend to make them a bit smaller. Traditionally, musubi is stuffed rice, but we like to mix our filling through the rice so the flavours are in every bite.
Place the filling and rice in a bowl and mix it gently until combined. Then it’s time for shaping – if you’re feeling confident, use damp hands to shape the rice. If not, turn the mixture out onto a sheet of cling film and twist it to make a ball of rice to shape.
Step 5: mould your musubi
A good musubi should be packed tightly enough to not crumble upon eating, but with the texture of each individual rice grain intact. There is a special two-handed motion to press into the traditional triangle shape – although you can make arty varieties such as a spherical ball or “pill” shape. The hand shape required presses the flat sides of the musubi as well as the three edges all in one press. After each press, rotate the triangle one edge to make it an even equilateral shape.
Step 6: finish your musubi
From then on it’s delicious and edible, but you can add extra touches. We dab a soy and mirin glaze on the musubi, then blowtorch it (you can grill or dry fry it too) and put sesame seeds on each edge. If you have access to a grill or frying pan you can also use these to crisp the sides instead of a blowtorch – often the Japanese will barbecue musubi in the summer.
Finally, cut a small rectangle of edible nori seaweed and use to hold the musubi while you’re eating it!
Mr Musubi is the collective of two friends, Mike Tsang and Tet Ogino, who had the idea of bringing Japan’s most popular snack “musubi” (or “onigiri” as it is sometimes known) to the UK. We’ve taken authentic recipes from Mama Ogino’s book and given them the Asian-fusion twist. They have a market stall that is open every Saturday, 10am-4:30pm at the Schoolyard Market near Broadway Market, London.