Vinegared Rice Balls Recipe

Do you want to learn how to make classic and iconic Japanese rice balls? It is easy and delicious!

Summer 2014

  • Photo courtesy iStock/c_yung

Total Hands-On Time: 1 hr

Yield: Approx. 40 balls

Vinegared Rice (or Sumeshi)

We especially like the flavor of sushi rice. So, we’ll make our onigiri from sumeshi (or vinegared rice).

Rice was brought to Japan around 4,000 years ago from the Asian mainland. Although other grains are also used in the Japanese diet (in particular rice and barley), rice became the staple which fed the culture, with the word for plain boiled rice (gohan) becoming synonymous with the word for “meal.” Japanese rice varieties are noted for their high levels of amylopectin, a soluble polysaccharide and highly branched polymer of glucose, and one of the two components of starch. As a result, this rice is sticky when cooked, which makes it easier to eat with chopsticks as this allows the rice to be picked up in clumps rather than as individual grains.

The process of cooking Japanese rice is one of removing enough — but not too much — of the amylopectin to allow for pleasantly sticky but not impossibly congealed grains. This is accomplished by first rinsing the rice a number of times in water, pre-soaking, and then finally cooking in as little water as possible. Do not try this recipe using other rice varieties — in particular long-grain Basmati or other non-sticky varieties as the rice balls will simply not hold together. This is not your mother’s or grandmother’s rice recipe, in which a social stigma was imagined to be placed on any 1950s housewife who allowed a sticky bowl of rice to be served at her table.



• 3 cups Japanese (or sushi) rice such as Calrose or Kohoku Rose
• One 5 inch strip of kombu
• 3-1/2 cups water
• 1/3 cup rice vinegar
• 3 tablespoons sugar
• 1-1/2 tablespoons sake
• 1-1/2 tablespoons mirin
• 1 scant tablespoon salt


1. Place rice in a deep bowl and fill with cool water. Mix until the water becomes white and chalky. Drain water and repeat this rinsing until the water runs fairly clear. Drain rice in a strainer and tap to remove excess liquid.

2. In a 5-quart saucepan combine rinsed and drained rice, kombu, and water. Soak for 15 minutes.

3. Mix together vinegar, sugar, sake, mirin, and salt until all the ingredients have dissolved. 

4. Bring rice and water to a rolling boil and reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for another 15 minutes.

5. With a damp wooden spatula or spoon remove rice to a wooden basin or a ceramic or glass bowl. Sprinkle the vinegar dressing over the rice. Place in front of a running fan, and toss the rice until the dressing has been completely absorbed and the rice has cooled to almost room temperature. 

6. Form rice into 2 inch balls using wet hands (keep a bowl of water nearby as the rice will impossibly stick to dry skin!) by firmly pressing the rice together. Place finished balls into a container and cover with a damp cloth.

Jeff Nekola has a PhD in Ecology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has a passion for biodiversity in its many forms, whether it be plants, butterflies, and land snails in the wild or crops grown in gardens, orchards and fields, or the use of those foods as expressed by the entire range of humanity's cuisines. You can learn more here.

Linda Fey's first and finest childhood memories are of helping her mother and grandmother in the garden and then bringing in freshly picked produce to the dinner table. As an adult, she has over 20 years of experience in market gardening and teaches middle-school English at the Albuquerque Institute for Math and Science. Visit to view her writing about food and life.

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