Onigiri, the long-forgotten cousin of sushi, is finding its place in Paris. At a tiny counter in the city’s 9th arrondissement, called Gili-Gili, Ai Watanabe and Samuel Trifot craft palm-sized rice balls filled with everything from salted Japanese plums to French comté.
The Japanese consider this millenia-old specialty a type of soul food. Compared to nigiri, a cuisine more often associated with high-end omakase, onigiri is either homemade or sold in konbini, the 24-hour convenience stores that are popular in Japan. It’s the perfect little snack: cheap to make, easy to transport, and good for you, too.
“Many French people discover onigiri through anime and manga,” says Trifot, an avid fan of the art form who spent years cooking through Japan and other parts of the world before opening Gili-Gili in Paris. It was in Sydney, Australia where he met his future business partner, Watanabe. “I was a cheesemonger. She was a barista,” he explains.
The duo set out to make onigiri more popular in France, which, like the U.S., had always been more familiar with sushi. In 2018, they hosted an onigiri workshop in Le Pavilion des Canaux in Paris, which eventually led to the opening of their shop that same year. While Trifot draws on the skills he learned in Japan, Watanabe, who grew up eating onigiri, exhibits a knack for thinking up original recipes.
Introducing the French to onigiri has been a lesson on minimalism. “The French—we like a lot of fat and sugar. We want everything at the same time, and we want it to be generous,” Trifot explains. “And onigiri is not weak in taste, but a lot of customers will often ask me, ‘Where is the soy sauce?’ What is inside is supposed to be salty enough to be tasty.”
During the pandemic, Watanabe and Trifot worked together on compiling a recipe book, simply titled Onigiri, that features Watanabe’s original how-to illustrations for cooking the perfect sticky rice, or wrapping the rice ball expertly in plastic wrap for storage. You’ll find recipes for onigiri made with easy-to-find vegetables, like sweet potato and beets, or more adventurous proteins like salmon roe and duck breast.
“You don’t have to go to school to make onigiri,” says Trifot. “It’s something a mom makes for her children.” And it all starts with the rice. A rice cooker is ideal for onigiri, as it prevents burning. You’ll want to use a short-grain white rice known as the japonica variety, which is naturally sweet, rich in starch, and sticky. Make sure to rinse the rice a few times to get rid of excess starch and any impurities. “But you don’t want to rinse the rice too much, because you’ll take out all the good fibers that the rice can offer,” he adds.
Trifot says the most common mistake he sees when teaching onigiri workshops is forgetting to let the rice soak in water for 30 minutes prior to cooking. This step allows the rice to cook faster and result in a softer texture. The second mistake is adding vinegar to the rice, in an attempt to mimic sushi. “I will insist on no vinegar,” Trifot says. “This is not what you will find in Japan. It’s not respecting the tradition or the taste.”
When it comes to shaping the onigiri, wetting your hands and spreading some salt on your palms will stop the rice from sticking. Create a small well, add your filling, and then imagine the roof of a house when forming the triangular shape. “Don’t press the rice too much,” Trifot advises. “Of course, you need to press it for the grains to stick together, but if you do it too much, the ingredients will not spread within the rice ball. They need to breathe.”
One of the most popular fillings at Gili-Gili is shiitake mushrooms. Fresh ones will always give off a more robust umami flavor and creamy texture, but if you can’t get a hold of shiitake mushrooms in your area, you can opt for dried ones. Whether they’re dried or fresh, leaving them out in the sun (gills up) for about two hours will increase their level of vitamin D2. And make sure to soak them, as a too-hard mushroom might introduce some bitterness to the onigiri.
There are several ways to wrap your onigiri in nori, but Trifot recommends the strip style for beginners. “When you buy nori, it usually comes in a square, so I would use one-eighth of it,” Trifot says. The smooth, silky side of the roasted seaweed should face the inside of the onigiri, while the rough side faces the outside.
Trifot and Watanabe have worked with dozens of onigiri chefs in Japan, who have all shared tips that differ in many ways but one: You’ve got to put some love into it. “Your hand is in direct contact with the food,” Trifot explains. “If you are stressed or sad, you will give that to the customer.” Who knew one little triangle could hold so much?
Yield: 6 onigiri
- 6 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 1 ¼ cups shiitake soaking water
- 1 ½ cups rice
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons mirin
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1. Soak the shiitake mushrooms in water and place in the refrigerator a day beforehand. After soaking, set aside the water and remove the shiitake stems. Slice the caps into thin strips.
2. Cook your rice and let it cool.
3. Place the soaking water, soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and shiitake mushrooms into a pan, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to low, cover the pan with a sheet of aluminum foil or a lid, and let simmer for 15 minutes.
4. Remove the aluminum foil or lid and continue to cook the mixture for around 10 minutes, until the sauce is reduced. Remove from heat and let cool (This step is very important to lock in the flavors).
5. Slightly strain the garnish but do not squeeze it, and then place in the center of your onigiri before shaping (Be careful not to leave too much sauce or your onigiri will not hold their shape).