Ultimate Guide to Ume Onigiri: Recipes, Pairings & Serving Tips

Imagine biting into a delightfully tangy and refreshingly simple treat that transports you straight to the heart of Japan. Ume onigiri, a traditional Japanese rice ball filled with pickled ume (Japanese plum), encapsulates the essence of Japanese comfort food. It’s not just a snack; it’s a cultural icon, beloved for its perfect balance of sour and salty flavors wrapped in a portable, seaweed-clad package.

Making ume onigiri at home is easier than you might think. With just a few key ingredients and some basic techniques, you’ll be crafting these delicious morsels in no time. Whether you’re looking for a quick lunch to take on the go or a healthy addition to your picnic basket, ume onigiri fits the bill perfectly. Let’s dive into the world of Japanese cuisine with this simple yet flavorful recipe.

Ingredients for Ume Onigiri

To create your own delectable ume onigiri, a select group of traditional ingredients is essential. Below, you’ll find what you need for crafting these iconic Japanese rice balls at home.

  1. Japanese Short-Grain Rice: 2 cups (uncooked)
  2. Water: Approx 2½ cups, for cooking the rice
  3. Rice Vinegar: 1 tablespoon (optional, for seasoning)
  4. Salt: 1 teaspoon, or to taste
  5. Umeboshi (Pickled Japanese Plums): 6-8 plums, pits removed and minced
  6. Nor seaweed sheets: 2-3 sheets, cut into strips for wrapping
  7. Sesame Seeds (optional): 1 tablespoon, for garnish

Start by rinsing the rice under cold water until the water runs clear. This removes excess starch and ensures your onigiri has the perfect texture. Cook the rice according to rice cooker instructions or by the stovetop method: Combine the rinsed rice with 2½ cups of water, bring to a boil, then cover and simmer on low heat for 18 minutes. Remove from the heat but keep the lid on for an additional 10 minutes to steam the rice.
After the rice is cooked and while still warm, you can optionally mix in rice vinegar and salt, gently folding it in to season the rice without mashing the grains.

Necessary Equipment

To make ume onigiri efficiently, you need the right tools. Here’s what you’ll need to gather before starting.

Cooking Tools

Firstly, ensure you have a rice cooker or a pot with a tight-fitting lid for cooking the rice, which is essential for achieving the soft, sticky texture needed for the onigiri. Next, a fine mesh strainer will help you rinse the rice thoroughly before cooking, removing excess starch which is crucial for the right consistency. Lastly, consider having a non-metallic bowl to season the rice—this helps prevent any unwanted reactions that could alter the taste of your ume onigiri.

Shaping Tools

For shaping the onigiri, a set of rice molds can simplify the process, especially if you’re aiming for uniformly shaped rice balls. If you prefer a more hands-on method, plastic wrap is essential, as it prevents the rice from sticking to your hands and makes it easier to form the rice balls. Don’t forget a small bowl of water with a teaspoon of salt dissolved in it; dip your hands in this before shaping the rice to add a slight seasoning and prevent sticking.

Rice Cooking Instructions

To ensure your ume onigiri has the perfect foundation, start by properly preparing the rice. This section will guide you through washing and cooking the rice, crucial steps for achieving the ideal texture and flavor.

Washing the Rice

  1. Measure out 2 cups of short-grain sushi rice.
  2. Place the rice in a fine mesh strainer and rinse under cold running water. Gently agitate the grains with your hands to release the excess starch.
  3. Continue rinsing until the water runs clear, which usually takes about 2-3 minutes. This step is vital as it helps prevent the rice from becoming too sticky or gummy.
  4. Allow the rice to drain in the strainer for at least 30 minutes. This resting period ensures that the grains dry slightly and cook evenly.

Cooking the Rice

  1. Transfer the drained rice into a rice cooker or a medium saucepan.
  2. Add 2 1/4 cups of water, which is the ideal ratio for sushi rice, ensuring it cooks up perfectly tender yet firm.
  3. If using a rice cooker, follow the manufacturer’s instructions to start the cooking process. For those using a stovetop, bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat, then cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 18 minutes.
  4. After the cooking time has elapsed, remove the pan from the heat but keep it covered. Allow the rice to steam in its own heat, undisturbed for 10 additional minutes. This step is crucial as it helps the grains to settle and absorb any remaining moisture without becoming mushy.
  5. Finally, fluff the rice gently with a fork or a rice paddle to separate the grains. This technique ensures each grain remains distinct and airy, setting the perfect stage for your ume onigiri.

Preparing Umeboshi Filling

As you’ve successfully prepared your rice, the next pivotal step is to focus on the umeboshi filling, which is the heart of any ume onigiri. Umeboshi, a pickled Japanese plum, is known for its distinctively sharp and salty flavor.

Pitting the Umeboshi

Firstly, gather your umeboshi plums. If they are whole, you’ll need to remove the pits before using them as a filling. Here’s how you can efficiently do this:

  1. Take an umeboshi plum and gently press it between your fingers to slightly flatten it and expose the pit.
  2. Use the tip of a small knife or your thumbnail to pry out the pit. Be careful to preserve as much of the plum flesh as possible.
  3. Discard the pits and set the pitted umeboshi aside.

Mixing Umeboshi with Seasonings

Once your umeboshi plums are pitted, it’s time to enhance their flavor:

  1. Chop the pitted umeboshi plums into smaller pieces to release more flavor.
  2. In a small bowl, mix the chopped umeboshi with a dash of soy sauce and a pinch of sugar. This balances the intense saltiness with a subtle sweetness, enriching the overall flavor profile of your onigiri filling.
  3. Stir the mixture until all ingredients are evenly incorporated.

Now that your umeboshi filling is ready, you can proceed to the final steps of assembling your ume onigiri.

Shaping the Onigiri

Now that your rice is seasoned and your umeboshi filling is ready, it’s time to shape your onigiri into perfect, tasty triangles.

Wetting Hands and Molding

Begin by wetting your hands with cold water to prevent the rice from sticking. Then, sprinkle a pinch of salt over your palms—it will enhance the flavor and also keep the rice from sticking. Take about half a cup of the prepared rice and place it on one palm. Press it slightly to compact the rice, which forms the base for your onigiri.

Inserting Umeboshi Filling

Make a small well in the center of the rice in your hand. Place a teaspoon of your seasoned umeboshi filling into this well. Be careful not to overfill, as it might seep out during the final shaping. Cover the plum with another layer of rice, using about a quarter cup, ensuring the filling is completely enclosed.

Forming the Triangle Shape

Cup both hands together and start shaping the rice into a triangle. Gently press the sides and rotate the rice ball in your hands several times to get an even shape. Be gentle enough so that the rice doesn’t become overly compacted, which could make the onigiri tough. Once you achieve a solid triangle with slightly rounded edges, set your finished onigiri aside on a clean plate. Repeat these steps until all your rice and filling are used up.

Serving Suggestions

Ume Onigiri is delicious on its own, but with the right pairings, it transforms into a memorable meal. Here’s how you can best serve these savory treats.

Presentation Ideas

Arrange your ume onigiri on a simple, elegant platter to highlight their distinct triangular shape. Pair them with small, pickled vegetables for a pop of color and texture. Consider using a bamboo mat as your serving tray to enhance the traditional Japanese aesthetic. For individual servings, you can wrap each onigiri in a small piece of nori (seaweed), which not only adds flavor but also makes them easier to hold and eat. Garnish with a sprinkle of sesame seeds or a few sprigs of fresh parsley to add a fresh look and subtle flavor contrasts.

Accompanying Dishes

To complement the tangy taste of the ume onigiri, consider serving them alongside a miso soup or a clear broth for a light yet fulfilling meal. A side of tempura—featuring vegetables like sweet potato, asparagus, or bell peppers—provides a delightful crunch that contrasts nicely with the soft, moist texture of the rice balls. For a refreshing side, a simple cucumber salad dressed with vinegar, sugar, and a touch of salt can cleanse the palate between bites of ume onigiri. If you’re aiming for a more substantial meal, include a protein like teriyaki chicken or grilled fish to round out the dining experience.


Now that you’ve got the scoop on crafting the perfect ume onigiri it’s time to roll up your sleeves and dive into making these delightful treats yourself. Whether you’re planning a casual lunch or a more elaborate meal these rice balls are sure to impress. Remember the joy of cooking comes from experimenting so feel free to tweak the fillings and accompaniments to suit your taste. Enjoy your culinary adventure and the delicious bites of Japan from your own kitchen!

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