In Paris, one of the food capitals of the world, the almighty baguette sandwich is facing some competition from recently opened "onigiri" rice ball specialty shops that are winning over customers who are hungry for a healthier option.

Along with being easy to eat while on the go, the trend can be attributed to health-conscious people demanding products such as rice balls which contain no wheat, and are compatible with the increasingly popular gluten-free diet.

The different fillings available for onigiri also make them a good choice for vegetarians, vegans and people with religious dietary restrictions.

With rice balls being the flavor of the month overseas, the Japanese government has set its sights on expanding rice exports.

Photo taken on Feb. 9, 2024, shows a man and woman eating onigiri at an Omusubi Gonbei outlet in Paris. (Kyodo)

At Gili-Gili, a central Paris onigiri shop owned by Frenchman Samuel Trifot, 36, and his wife Ai Watanabe, 39, customers begin streaming in a little past noon to buy rice balls with "kombu" (kelp), "umeboshi" (pickled Japanese plum) and other fillings.

The cost of one onigiri is between 3 and 4 euros, which at about 490-650 yen would be considered expensive in Japan. But in Paris, the Japanese fare is a price-competitive option. Buying three rice balls would likely be cheaper than a lunchtime meal for one.

"It's healthy and easy to eat. It's probably better than getting a baguette sandwich," a 28-year-old woman, who works in publishing and bought an onigiri with tuna and mayo filling at the shop, said.

Trifot and his wife had opened a shop at a different location in 2018 before relocating to their present address this year.

Photo taken Feb. 9, 2024, shows Samuel Trifot (L) handing onigiri to a customer at his shop in Paris. (Kyodo)

"In the past several years (at least) five onigiri specialty shops have opened. We're still in our infancy, but we hope we become popular like sushi and ramen are," Trifot said.

There is another onigiri shop just 200 meters from Gili-Gili. Rice balls have also become a common sight at supermarkets and other grocers over the past year or two and are gaining wider recognition among Parisian consumers.

The quasi-governmental Japan External Trade Organization is also eager to take advantage of the rice ball boom, hoping that it will lead to an increase in Japanese rice exports.

Photo taken Feb. 9, 2024, shows an outlet in Paris of Omusubi Gonbei, a Japanese chain of rice ball shops. Rice balls, called onigiri or omusubi in Japanese, are gaining popularity as a healthy food in the French capital. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

But onigiri buzz was further generated by Japanese specialty store Omusubi Gonbei, which in November 2017 opened a store in Paris -- the first one in Europe. According to the shop, it chose Paris because "many people are sensitive to taste." It is still popular, frequently having long lines of customers. Omusubi Gonbei opened a second store, also in the capital, in February last year.

"Our sales are only due to the taste of Japanese rice," Daisuke Sato, 51, the representative of the local subsidiary, said proudly. Brown rice is imported from Japan, milled and prepared in the shop. Sato says the Japanese rice can be enjoyed in its best condition.

Onigiri are gluten-free, and if you choose the right ingredients, vegetarians, vegans, Muslims and people of all religions faiths can eat them, Sato added. "It is a food that is in step with the current times," he said.

The company's goal is to increase the number of stores in Paris, as well as to expand to other European cities. "This is just the start. The sky is the limit for us," Sato said.

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