Yaki Onigiri, Pan Fried Japanese Tuna Rice Balls

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A few months ago, my husband and I went to Rodeo 39 Public Market in Stanton, Ca. Just imagine a big food hall with a ton of different food and beverage vendors. It was foodie heaven! Amongst the matcha lattes from Coffee Dose and mochi donuts that we tried, we made sure to save room for some Japanese onigiri (rice balls) from one of the food vendors, Tenori. We tried their pork belly, salmon and tuna rice balls. The tuna mayo onigiri was our favorite!

Close up of tuna rice balls.

Toward the end of my pregnancy, I found myself REALLY craving an easy snack like spicy tuna onigiri but the last thing I wanted to do was drive an hour away to purchase them from Tenori. I told my husband that I’d try my hand at making homemade onigiri for us to enjoy. The filling is pretty simple and consists of a can of tuna, mayo, soy sauce, and sriracha if you’re feeling spicy.

These tuna rice balls can be enjoyed as a portable snack for road trips, appetizers, a side dish, or an easy meal. 

Ingredients

Below, are the simple ingredients you’ll need to make your tuna mayo rice balls:

Ingredients for rice balls.
  • Room temperature white rice
  • Canned tuna
  • Mayonnaise
  • Soy sauce
  • Sesame oil
  • Salt
  • Black sesame seeds (optional)

See recipe card for quantities.

Assembling Tuna Rice Balls

Below, are a few process shots along with step-by-step instructions. Please reach out or comment if anything seems unclear or if you need any help.

Tuna and mayo in a clear bowl.

1. Drain tuna then empty the can into a large bowl. Mix tuna with soy sauce and mayonnaise. Set aside.

White rice over plastic wrap in a small bowl.

2. In another bowl, add in your cooked rice, sesame oil and salt. Combine with a rice paddle. Place a piece of cling film over a small bowl and fill it with the rice mixture. Remove the piece of plastic wrap from the bowl and twist into a ball.

Flattened rice ball with tuna in the middle.

3. Next, you’ll want to flatten the rice ball a bit. Add about a tablespoon worth of filling to the center of the flattened rice ball. 

Rice ball wrapped in plastic wrap.

4. Gather all the edges of the plastic wrap together and twist and form into a ball again. Repeat this process four more times. Optional: roll rice balls in dish filled with black sesame seeds before pan frying.

Hint: do not smash rice balls down with spatula when pan frying them. Doing so may cause them to crumble and start falling apart.

Substitutions

  • Tuna – instead of a tuna filling, you can use fresh fish, pork belly, spam, cod roe, or any other protein of choice.
  • Pan Fry – you can simply eat the rice balls as is if you prefer to skip the pan frying step.
  • Regular Mayo – instead of using regular mayonnaise, you can use kewpie mayo which is a Japanese mayonnaise. You can find it at local Asian grocery stores.
  • Black Sesame Seeds – instead of rolling rice balls in sesame seeds, you can roll it in seaweed flakes or wrap it in a sheet of nori.

Variations

Below, are a few variations to consider for yourself or if serving to guests:

  • Vegetarian – you can swap out tuna for other onigiri fillings like pickled veggies and/or tofu.
  • Kid Friendly – skip adding any sriracha to the filling if serving to children (unless they can handle the heat!)
  • Different Fillings – get creative and add other ingredients like green onions to your tuna mixture. 
  • Triangle Shape Onigiri – you can use an onigiri mold to create onigiri in the shape of a triangle like the image below.

Conclusion

Japanese rice balls, or onigiri, offer a great solution for transforming a handful of ingredients and leftover rice into a delicious snack that not only satisfies the palate but also provides a taste of authentic Japanese cuisine. 

Equipment

Storage

These delicious rice balls should be stored properly to maintain their freshness and flavor. Here’s how to store them:

  1. Wrap in Plastic Wrap: Individually wrap each rice ball tightly in plastic wrap. Make sure the plastic wrap is sealed snugly to prevent air from reaching the rice, which can lead to drying.
  2. Place in an Airtight Container: After wrapping, store the wrapped rice balls in an airtight container. This extra layer of protection helps maintain their quality and prevents them from absorbing odors from the refrigerator.
  3. Label and Date: To keep track of their freshness, label the container with the date when you made the rice balls.
  4. Refrigerate: Store the container in the refrigerator. Onigiri can be refrigerated for up to 1-2 days.
  5. Avoid Freezing: It’s generally not recommended to freeze tuna rice balls. Freezing can change the texture and taste of the rice.

When you’re ready to enjoy your tuna rice balls, simply remove them from the refrigerator, unwrap, and enjoy. If you plan to take them on the go, you can keep them in a lunch box or a sealed container to ensure they stay fresh until mealtime.

Top tip

Pan fry the rice balls on medium heat for at least 5 minutes on each side. This will help you get that crispy, outer texture. Try to avoid flipping over back and forth so that rice balls stay intact.

FAQ

What is yaki onigiri?

Grilled rice balls with some kind of filling. Some people coat the outside portion of the rice balls with a sauce before grilling or pan frying them. This step is optional.

Does it matter what kind of rice I use?

It’s recommended to use short-grain rice or medium grain rice. The reason for this is because shorter grain rice will adhere together better when formed into a ball since they are small pieces of rice in comparison to long grain rice, like jasmine. I usually only have jasmine rice on hand and these rice ball have held together just fine every time that I’ve made them.

Looking for other recipes like this? Try these:

Tuna Rice Balls

Learn how to make your very own tuna yaki onigiri (grilled tuna rice balls)! These can be enjoyed as a snack, appetizer or main dish.
Print Recipe PIN RECIPE
Prep Time:15 minutes
Cook Time:10 minutes
Total Time:25 minutes
Servings: 5 rice balls

Ingredients

  • 2 cups white rice, cooked
  • 1 can tuna
  • 3 tbsp mayonnaise
  • 1 tsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp sesame oil
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • black sesame seeds (optional)

Instructions

  • Cook your two cups of rice. Add those 2 cups into a large bowl. Add 1 tbsp sesame oil and 1/2 tsp salt to cooked rice. Combine with a rice paddle if one is available. In another bowl, combine tuna, soy sauce and mayonnaise.
  • Place a piece of plastic wrap over a small bowl and fill with rice. Remove plastic from bowl and twist into a ball. Next, you'll want to flatten the rice ball on a flat surface. Add about a tablespoon of filling to the center of the flattened rice ball. Gather all edges of the plastic wrap together and twist to form into a ball again. Repeat this process four more times. Optional: roll rice balls in dish filled with black sesame seeds.
  • Set pan to medium heat. Once pan is hot, add in a few tablespoons of sesame oil. Add rice balls to pan and sear for at least 5 minutes on each side to get a nice, crispy outer texture. Add a few more minutes if you'd like rice balls to be a bit more golden. Serve over a salad or with your favorite veggies.

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