It’s easy to see why onigiri is so popular. Portable, tasty, simple and not so substantial as to spoil a main meal. For these very reasons, husband-and-wife team Alen Ng and Janny Sy – who moved to Sydney from Hong Kong four years ago – have dedicated their new Surry Hills eatery, Mogu Mogu, to onigiri.

Like all simple foods, the key to onigiri is good ingredients. “Rice is the soul of onigiri,” Sy tells Broadsheet. “We use 100 per cent Hokkaido rice, plus Japanese-imported ingredients and gluten-free soy sauce. The meats are slow-cooked for the best flavours, and we pay careful attention to every step of creating each onigiri.”

Twelve flavours – catering for vegans, vegetarians, pescatarians and omnivores – are on offer at the compact 10-seater, whose name means “munching” in Japanese. There are light versions, like nanko-ume plum with shiso leaves, and edamame with shredded seaweed, plus some protein options: soft, marinated onsen egg; teriyaki salmon; and yuzu pork belly.

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A line-up of made-to-order onigiri lends drama to the diminutive shop. Behind his counter, Ng lays a thin sheet of M9 Wagyu over rice before torching the meat for a quick and delicious char. The salmon, roe and unagi (eel) painted with layers of reduced soy sauce are also made to order.

The drinks are nearly as considered as the onigiri. Viridescent iced matcha and mellow, chocolatey hojicha are made with Uji Kyoto powders imported from Japan and prepared traditionally, using a speckled earthenware bowl and a bamboo whisk. They’re typically served without sugar, but Sy acknowledges that the Australian palate might be accustomed to sweeter drinks and is more than happy to sweeten them up.

The pair consulted with local Japanese chefs to develop the menu, but the fit-out was Ng’s pet project. “We went for minimalistic and rustic,” Sy says. “We wanted to create a space that’s welcoming and loving with lighthearted, zen Japanese music. In the end we kept it simple; our goal was to invest more into the food than an extravagant renovation.”

Sydney is loving the recent influx of onigiri eateries. There’s the well-loved Parami on Alberta Street, plus Domo 39 – with its onigiri, bento boxes and soft-serve – which opened in April in St Peters and does a smashing trade. During Mogu Mogu’s first few weeks of operations, they were so busy Sy lost her voice.

“Onigiri offers a fresh alternative to sushi, and in Sydney I think Japanese concepts are always well received. Onigiri is also really affordable, and in the current economic climate it allows people to still enjoy premium experiences without spending too much.”

Mogu Mogu
454 Cleveland Street, Surry Hills

Daily 9am–4pm