Onigiri, sushi’s long-forgotten cousin, finds its place in Paris. At a small counter in the 9th arrondissement of the city called Gili-GiliAi Watanabe and Samuel Trifot make palm-sized rice balls filled with everything from salted Japanese plums to French comté.
The Japanese consider this millennia-old specialty a kind 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 store popular in Japan. It’s the perfect little snack: cheap to make, easy to transport and good for you too.
“A lot of French people discover onigiri through anime and manga,” says Trifot, an avid fan of the art form who spent years cooking around 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 cheese farmer. She was a barista,” he explains.
The duo wanted to make onigiri more popular in France, which, like the US, has always been more familiar with sushi. In 2018 they organized an onigiri workshop in Le Pavilion des Canaux in Paris, which eventually led to the opening of their store that same year. While Trifot uses the skills he learned in Japan, Watanabe, who grew up eating onigiri, shows a talent for coming up with original recipes.
Introducing the French to onigiri was a lesson in 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”, explains Trifot. “And onigiri is not weak in taste, but many customers will often ask me: ‘Where is the soy sauce?’ What’s in it has to be salty enough to be tasty.”
During the pandemic, Watanabe and Trifot collaborated on putting together a recipe book simply titled Onigiri, featuring Watanabe’s original how-to illustrations for cooking the perfect glutinous rice, or expertly wrapping the rice ball in plastic wrap for storage. You’ll find recipes for onigiri made with easy-to-find vegetables, such as sweet potato and beets, or more adventurous proteins such as salmon roe and duck breast.
“You don’t have to go to school to make onigiri,” says Trifot. “It’s something a mother makes for her children.” And it all starts with the rice. A rice cooker is ideal for onigiri because it prevents burning. You’ll want to use a short-grain white rice known as the japonica variety, which is naturally sweet, high in starch, and sticky. Make sure to rinse the rice a few times to remove excess starch and any impurities. “But you don’t want to over-rinse the rice, because that will take out all the good fiber the rice has to offer,” he adds.
Trifot says the most common mistake he sees when teaching onigiri workshops is forgetting to soak the rice in water for 30 minutes before cooking. This step causes the rice to cook faster and results 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,” says Trifot. “This is not what you will find in Japan. It doesn’t respect tradition or taste.”
When it comes to shaping the onigiri, wetting your hands and sprinkling some salt on your palms will prevent the rice from sticking. Make a small pit, add your fill, then imagine the roof of a house when forming the triangular shape. “Don’t put too much pressure on the rice,” advises Trifot. “Of course you have to press it to make the grains stick together, but if you do it too much, the ingredients won’t spread in the rice ball. They need to breathe.”
One of the most popular fillings on Gili-Gili is shiitake mushrooms. Fresh mushrooms will always give off a more robust umami flavor and creamy texture, but if you can’t get shiitake mushrooms in your area, opt for dried mushrooms. Whether dried or fresh, if you leave them in the sun (gills) for about two hours, their vitamin D2 content increases. And be sure to soak them, as a mushroom that is too hard can bring 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’d use one-eighth of it,” says Trifot. The smooth, silky side of the roasted seaweed should face the inside of the onigiri, while the rough side should face the outside.
Trifot and Watanabe have collaborated with dozens of onigiri chefs in Japan, all of whom have shared tips that differ in many ways, but one: you have to put some love into it. “Your hand is in direct contact with the food,” explains Trifot. “If you’re stressed or sad, you give that to the customer.” Who knew a small triangle could hold so much?
Yield: 6 onigiri
- 6 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 1 cup shiitake soaking water
- 1 ½ cup rice
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons mirin
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1. Soak the shiitake mushrooms in water and refrigerate the day before. After soaking, set the water aside and remove the shiitake stems. Cut the hats into thin strips.
2. Boil your rice and let it cool.
3. Place the soaking water, soy sauce, mirin, sugar and shiitake mushrooms in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan with a sheet of aluminum foil or a lid and simmer for 15 minutes.
4. Remove the aluminum foil or lid and continue cooking for about 10 minutes until the sauce has reduced. Remove from heat and let cool (This step is very important to retain the flavours).
5. Sieve the garnish slightly, but do not squeeze, then place in the center of your onigiri before shaping (be careful not to leave too much sauce or your onigiri will not hold its shape).