Onigiri, a long forgotten relative of sushi, finds its place in Paris. At a tiny stall in the city’s 9th arrondissement called Gili-Gili, Ai Watanabe and Samuel Trifot prepare palm-sized rice balls filled with everything from salty Japanese plums to French conte.
The Japanese consider this millennial dish food for the soul. Compared to nigiri, a cuisine more commonly associated with high-end omakase, onigiri is either home-cooked or sold in konbini, a popular convenience store in Japan. It’s the perfect little snack: cheap to make, easy to transport, and healthy for you.
“Many French people learn about onigiri through anime and manga,” says Trifo, an avid fan of the art form who spent years cooking in Japan and other parts of the world before discovering Gili Gili Island in Paris. It was in Sydney, Australia that he met his future business partner, Watanabe. “I was a cheese merchant. She was a barista,” he explains.
The duo set out to make onigiri more popular in France, which, like the US, has always been more familiar with sushi. In 2018, they held an onigiri workshop at Le Pavilion des Canaux in Paris, which eventually led to the opening of their shop that same year. While Triphot draws on the skills he learned in Japan, Watanabe, who grew up with onigiri, demonstrates a knack for coming up with original recipes.
The acquaintance of the French with onigiri was a lesson in minimalism. “The French — we love a lot of fat and sugar. We want everything at the same time, and we want it to be generous,” explains Trifot. “And onigiri is not weak in taste, but many customers will often ask me: “Where is the soy sauce?” What’s inside has to be salty enough to be delicious.”
During the pandemic, Watanabe and Trifot worked together to put together a recipe book with a simple title. Onigiri, which features Watanabe’s original illustrations with how-to’s for making the perfect glutinous rice or masterfully wrapping a rice ball in plastic wrap for storage. You’ll find onigiri recipes made with readily available vegetables like sweet potatoes and beets, or more unusual proteins like salmon roe and duck breast.
“You don’t have to go to school to make onigiri,” Trifot says. “This is what a mother does for her children.” And it all starts with rice. A rice cooker is ideal for onigiri as it prevents burning. You can use short-grain white rice known as the japonica variety, which is naturally sweet, rich in starch, and sticky. Be sure to rinse the rice several times to get rid of excess starch and any impurities. “But you don’t want to rinse the rice too much because you will remove all the good fibers that the rice has to offer,” he adds.
Trifot says the most common mistake he encounters in onigiri workshops is forgetting to soak rice in water for 30 minutes before cooking. This step allows the rice to cook faster and have a softer texture. The second mistake is adding vinegar to rice in an attempt to imitate sushi. “I won’t insist on vinegar,” Trifo says. “It’s not something you find in Japan. It’s not respect for tradition or taste.”
When it comes to shaping the onigiri, wet your hands and sprinkle salt on them to keep the rice from sticking together. Create a small well, add your filling, and then imagine the roof of the house while forming a triangular shape. “Don’t push too hard on the rice,” Trifot advises. “Of course you have to press it down to get the grains to stick together, but if you do it too hard, the ingredients won’t spread inside the rice ball. They need to breathe.”
One of the most popular toppings on Gili Gili is shiitake mushrooms. Fresh mushrooms will always give a stronger umami flavor and creamy texture, but if you can’t find shiitake mushrooms in your area, you can opt for dried ones. Whether dried or fresh, leaving them in the sun (gills up) for about two hours will boost your vitamin D2 levels. And be sure to soak them, as mushrooms that are too firm can add some bitterness to the onigiri.
There are several ways to wrap onigiri in nori, but Trifot recommends that beginners wrap them in stripes. “When you buy nori, it’s usually square, so I would use an eighth,” Trifot says. The smooth, silky side of the fried seaweed should be facing the inside of the onigiri, while the rough side should be facing out.
Trifot and Watanabe have worked with dozens of onigiri chefs in Japan, and they all share tips that differ in many ways, except for one thing: you need to put a little love into cooking. “Your hand is in direct contact with the food,” Trifot explains. “If you are stressed or sad, you will let the customer know.” Who knew that one small triangle could hold so much?
Yield: 6 onigiri
- 6 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 1 ¼ cups water for soaking shiitake
- 1 ½ cups rice
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons mirin
- 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar
1. Soak shiitake mushrooms in water and refrigerate overnight. After soaking, drain the water and remove the shiitake stalks. Cut the caps into thin strips.
2. Cook the rice and let it cool down.
3. Place the soaking water, soy sauce, mirin, sugar and shiitake mushrooms in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to low, cover pot with 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 about 10 minutes until the sauce has evaporated. Remove from heat and let cool (this step is very important to preserve the flavor).
5. Lightly strain the garnish without squeezing and then place in the center of the onigiri before shaping (be careful not to leave too much sauce or your onigiri won’t hold its shape).