The Austin Chronicle

https://www.austinchronicle.com/food/2020-12-25/balancing-high-school-and-a-budding-onigiri-business/

Balancing High School and a Budding Onigiri Business

Samurice entrepreneur Kenta Asazu will even deliver your order by bicycle

By James Scott, December 25, 2020, Food

Kenta Asazu has been making onigiri for most of his 17-year-old life. Not just while working in the kitchen at his family's restaurant, Sa-Tén, but since he was a kindergartner, in fact. He describes onigiri as sort of a Japanese version of the American peanut butter and jelly – a comfort food that you learn to make very young. "My great-grandmother and my grandparents would make them for me every day as a lunch when I would go to school in Japan every summer," Asazu says. The New Orleans-born and Austin-raised teen decided to channel that long-developed culinary skill into the small onigiri pickup and delivery service Samurice.

For those unfamiliar with the delicious Japanese snack, onigiri is a rice ball formed around any number of fillings. Asazu says his experience in the Sa-Tén kitchen, as well as polling popular onigiri flavors with the Japanese staff, gave him inspiration for a business centered on the easy and fairly low-cost snack. "I also knew people would like it because it's such a versatile food. Meaning you can eat it anywhere, anytime," he says. "When I would take it to school for lunch, my friends would always ask for me to bring them some."

Balancing Samurice and school has been hard but not as impossible as he once thought, thanks to teachers being sympathetic to pandemic-stressed high schoolers. "I thought junior year would kick my ass," he admits, "but my teachers have been very lenient and accommodating for us students." Still, managing a business as a teen has been an interesting adventure. He's had a few struggles – maintaining motivation as winter orders slow up, balancing Samurice with his continued work in the family restaurant (Sa-Tén's sibling restaurants include Komé and Uroko), and dealing with a fine for not promptly paying his sales tax. Yet the highlights have indeed been high, including a massive catering order for a sumo wrestling tournament and a growing stable of loyal Samurice customers.

Currently, orders from Samurice are limited to Saturdays and can be put in via an Instagram DM, email, or text. Pickups are at Sa-Tén on Airport Boulevard, but Asazu also does deliveries by bike (within a limited radius). Biking is Asazu's main mode of transportation not just for deliveries, but to soccer practice and basically everywhere else since, he bemoans, "I procrastinated taking driver's ed and I have yet to take my driver's test to get my license." He says he likes the exercise, although he has recently been practicing driving delivery orders with his mom.

Coming up with the Samurice name was a delicate process, including some total misfires. "Originally, my mom suggested Onigiri Boy," Asazu recalls, "and I was absolutely against that." Instead, he says that a friend's mom's suggestion of adding the words samurai and rice together really clicked with his vision of the business' logo: an onigiri with a samurai headdress. "I thought, 'Americans love samurai and Japanese food. That's perfect!'"

Although the Samurice menu rotates a bit, most of the offerings are fairly traditional, with ingredients like salmon, tuna mayo, and ume (a wonderfully sweet-and-sour pickled Japanese plum). There have been more seasonal offerings, like a Thanksgiving-themed turkey miso takana onigiri that Asazu says his mother helped develop. However, he has since enjoyed the turkey takana flavor so much that he plans to make that particular onigiri a permanent menu item. While Samurice will be taking a winter break, the plan is to return in January with some new ideas that Asazu is brainstorming with his mother just in time for a very important holiday in Japan: New Year's.

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