I think onigiri, or rice balls, are the most popular on-the-go food that exists in Japan today. They are the New Yorker’s version of a bagel. They are the American’s donut. There are so many varieties and you can get one fresh in less than 2 minutes. Sometimes there is nothing more satisfying than a ball of rice with your favorite filling enclosed in the center.
Onigiri have nearly 2000 years of history, with the earliest records of people eating rice wrapped in bamboo leaves going back to the Yayoi Period (300 BC–300 AD). Rice when seasoned with salt has a long shelf-life, and when wrapped in seaweed, is very easy to hold without dirtying one’s hands. It doesn’t require any cutlery, and you don’t need any bowls or plates in order to eat this versatile food. It’s also extremely healthy, and a combination of its nutrition and convenience quickly made it an extremely popular food.
Any given store that sells onigiri will usually carry between 10 and 20 different varieties, and there are hundreds of different flavors that are circulated seasonally, with dozens of new flavors being created every year. My all-time favorite filling is the classic kombu (seaweed), but other popular flavors include salmon, tuna and mayo, salmon roe, pickled plum, and mentaiko (salted pollock roe). There are many meat and fish options, but Japan does carry a variety of vegetable-only options for those of you who do not consume animal products.
Onigiri is popular not only for its convenience and ease of eating, but for its affordable cost as well. Cooking rice from scratch can be costly and time consuming, as you need a rice cooker to cook rice safely and access to water, electricity, and time. But onigiri at most stores come at the cheap cost of around 100 yen (about 1 USD). Some special onigiri can be as much as 200 yen, but sometimes discounted onigiri can be as cheap as 30 yen (less than 30 cents)! A lot of cheap grocery stores will also mass-sell onigiri at around 50~80 yen, making them even cheaper than convenience store onigiri. These prices can’t be beat. This is a food I definitely wish was more readily available in US stores, as I can eat these pretty much everyday, and the carbs give me a nice energy boost too.