When Yuta Katsuyama landed at the Illinois Institute of Technology four semesters ago, in the very real food desert of Bronzeville, he couldn’t find anything to eat.
“In my campus there is only 7-Eleven,” he says “And they sell super oily sandwich. Every time I eat that sandwich, I feel bad.”
Convenience stores in Tokyo, where Katsuyama’s from, had everything he needed, so he couldn’t understand the absence of onigiri in Chicago. There was plenty of ramen and sushi in the city. Where were the rice balls?
In Japan, onigiri, or omusubi, are picnic and lunchbox staples. Pressed pyramids, or balls, of steamed, unseasoned rice, wrapped in crackly nori and stuffed, commonly, with various seaweeds, salty seafoods, or pickled plums. Samurai carried them into battle. They’re everywhere, eaten by everyone, all the time.
For overworked professionals such as Katsuyama, who was a management consultant in the food tech industry, their absence would be unthinkable. “Onigiri is really handy,” he says. “You can eat with just one hand. You can eat while working.” Besides that, they’re tightly knit into the emotional fabric of the nation. Katsuyama’s mom, like everybody else’s, made them for him when he was a kid. “This is kind of stupid,” he says (laughing). But “when I was an undergrad student I had a girlfriend, and when I have time, I always make onigiri for her.”
Katsuyama, who’s 30, came to Chicago to study business and design at IIT, but like many of us, he found himself with plenty of time on his hands during quarantine. And his first two years of onigiri deprivation led him to the inevitable: founder of Ongiri Shuttle Kororin, Chicago’s rice ball shadow pop-up.
For a class project during his first semester, he designed a small triangular rice cooker that stuffed and wrapped individual onigiri. This was popular enough among his Asian classmates, and those who had traveled to Asia, that he saw a spark of potential. He followed it up with an onigiri breakfast meal kit, but was discouraged by the numbers of his peers who turned up their noses at the idea of fish and rice first thing in the morning. Besides that, most of them didn’t own rice cookers.
He was reinspired the following year after a seminar at the west-side food incubator the Hatchery, when he realized that onigiri didn’t have to be just breakfast. He entered the Hatchery’s six-month Sprouts Incubation Program, and though he got busy with grad school, the rice balls came to term in quarantine.
His test subjects from the meal-kit prototype weren’t much into the minimalist qualities of traditional onigiri; strong fish and pickles amid relatively unseasoned rice. “I realized I needed to localize my onigiri,” he says. He settled on grilled, or yaki onigiri, the exterior of the rice balls taking on a toasty golden crust, their interiors tossed with bonito flakes and soy, salmon and butter, sour pickled plum tempered by cheese, and miso sparked with shichimi peppers. While none of these are too far off the mark, there’s the corn-cheese-pepper onigiri: shredded mozzarella and sweet corn with a slice of bruleed swiss on top.
He designed menu cards decorated with Edo-period woodblock prints by Katsushika Hokusai, and chose biodegradable packaging, with each onigiri separated by wax paper, a neatly ordered row of them wrapped in bamboo skin. COVID-related licensing delays set him back a few weeks, but by July 19 he was taking orders on his website and posting weekly pickup schedules in different neighborhoods on Instagram, nimbly switching locations in the shuttle, a silver hybrid Chevy Volt, according to demand or lack of it.
Working from a shared kitchen in the Hatchery, he and a classmate start forming 150 onigiri in plastic molds each morning at 6:30, before packing them in coolers, and heading for the day’s drop five hours later. By request, he’s already added vegan options, and he launched a braised pork belly collaborative version with Ramen Tatsunoya, a Pasadena-based tonkotsu ramen-ya operating out of the Kitchen United ghost kitchen, on the near north side.
Because the possibilities seem endless, Onigiri Shuttle Kororin is rolling to a stop this Sunday, August 23. Katsuyama’s fielding requests from restaurants and retail outlets that want a steady supply of onigiri, and he’s taking a break to retool his model. He’ll be back in three weeks or so, working with a third-party delivery service while he expands the concept. But the shuttle will ride again.
“This shuttle delivery model—I wasn’t sure about how this works,” he says. “There’s Uber Eats—you can order 30 minutes before your lunch, the driver brings the meal to your place. So why would people order the day before, and also they need to pick up at the locations? But it seems like people are enjoying picking up food and talking with us.”
He’s envisioning a mobile convenience store showcasing a number of different uncommon products. One of his friends who’s helping out wants to market a particular salsa unavailable outside of Mexico. “There are lot of people here that want to start this business,” he says. “It’s easier for them to test their concept. They don’t have to have a physical location. [They can] test the location as well. Because of the preorder system they can control the amount of ingredients for the day.”
And it’s flexible enough for him to test his bespoke onigiri idea. “Onigiri is just the rice, so it can be Chinese onigiri or Indian onigiri or Mexican onigiri, right? If we can collect the data of people’s preferences and create customized onigiri, for customers it will be fun. But that’s just imagination.” v