Kozue Morii’s Artful Bento Box Cures Separation Anxiety

By on Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

toquemag_bento box 2When Kozue Morii’s 5-year-old son, Charlie clung to her the first day of kindergarten and wouldn’t let go, she knew she had a problem. “He would not stop crying; he’d hang onto my clothes,” she recalls. “He was so used to being with me at home.” She dug deep into her Japanese roots and began to think of creative ways to “make him smile” by applying her culinary skills from her own childhood.
She decided to make him a bento box lunch, but not just any ordinary bento box. Bento box lunches are single-portion home-packed meals common in Japanese cuisine. They include rice, fish or meat, and pickled or cooked vegetables packed in a box-shaped container.
Instead, Morii whipped up some deep-fried Asian-style meatballs. Topped with mozzarella cheese pieces, a tomato smile and olive eyes, they started to look a lot like one of Charlie’s favorite creatures from PIKMIN, a Japanese Nintendo video game they play together. (Get the recipe here.)

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“When I showed him the first lunch I made for him and he saw his favorite PIKMIN character, he looked at me and said “I am so happy;” he didn’t cry at school anymore after that.”
Yellow American cheese, cut into PIKMIN body shapes with nori seaweed eyes and snow pea leaves on a tomato tulip were some other ways she used food to surprise Charlie in his lunch every day.

Baking and Bento Magic

Kozue Morii shows off her bunny curry dish.

Kozue Morii shows off her bunny curry dish.

A self-taught baker, Morii began selling her goods at college festivals in Kyoto, Japan where she was living. She named her business “tree top forest,” which is the English translation for “Kozue” and began creating such delights as sweet bean buns, a pound cake made with a cookie dough base and her own version of banana bread.
“Japanese people enjoy with their eyes,” Morii says. “They look for what is pretty even in food and like to hear stories about what they are eating. We use the four seasons for inspiration; even candy has meaning with the various shapes representing the seasons and holidays we are celebrating.”
In 2001, she met and married an American and came to the US to live. At first, she had a difficult time finding some of her favorite things such as cocoa cream puffs and Japanese Christmas cake” (a traditional homemade, sponge cake filled with heavy cream and fruit center) at the grocery stores in Durham, NC where she and Mike settled.
Morii reasoned that if she couldn’t purchase these favorites then she’d make them herself, decorating them with various food items such as kiwi, strawberries, blueberries and sometimes adding peanut butter and chocolate ganache to the heavy cream fillings of her homemade cakes.
“When my son Charlie was born,” Morii said, “I had to think of other ways to be creative with my food so that Charlie would get used to eating it. It was different from what other mothers were feeding their children.”

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For example, for Charlie’s 3rd birthday Morii created a no-bake sushi cake, an alternative to sugar cakes with layers of frosting like his friends were eating. Made from a Japanese base of sticky rice, she layered the rice cake in lasagna fashion with cooked chicken and mushrooms, a splash of sake and soy sauce and a layer of cooked scrambled eggs that she made with chop sticks. She decorated it like a real birthday cake with fruit and flowers, and Charlie loved it.
Morii’s food artistry has made her a mini celebrity chef in the neighborhood where she lives; parents ask her to teach them how to make the clever lunchtime edibles. “I always have ideas on how to make food fun,” she says. “Fun food makes people happy.”

Written by Linda Iaderosa

Linda Iaderosa, a producer and writer, has this to say: "Living in San Jose, attending Stanford with my wonderful husband and writing for food--life couldn't be more delicious!"

10 Comments

  1. Sandra says:

    I love this story about the bento lunch box not to mention I’m jealous that I don’t have a sushi cake for my birthday. Having spent much time in Japan I love doing what I called the sushi crawl. Going from sushi bar to sushi bar. It’s never enough. I wish I lived closer to this talented chef!

  2. linda Iaderosa says:

    These meatballs are “Crazy good”!!
    Next the Sushi cake!

  3. A. Schalley says:

    Wow! How creative can you get?? Great ideas and what a way to solve separation anxiety!
    Article was so well written, too! I could almost smell and taste the rice, soy sauce and tomatoes! Linda – you made me hungry!

  4. E. Bontempt says:

    What a clever idea and what charming creations! I also love the balance between fun and healthy eating. Thank you Kozue for sharing your creations; your fun food brought a smile to my face!

  5. LillianaBraico says:

    She has turned food into art !! Loved reading this great article and seeing how this lovely lady solved a.problem in such a creative way– true Japanese artistry!!! You always find the most inspiring stories, Linda Iaderosa!

  6. M. Mullins says:

    The lunches look so healthful compared to our school menu. I’m sure Charlie made new friends as he shared his fun lunches with other kids sitting around him.

  7. Gina Samuels says:

    What a delightful story and it’s always interesting to see art created in different forms. Not to mention the fact that I love sushi!

  8. Janice Coyle says:

    Kozue is inspirational when it comes to creating her lunches. Charlie is one lucky kid!

  9. Regina says:

    I really enjoyed reading about these creative ideas! Very well-written…

  10. Karen G. says:

    What an inspiring article. Not only does the food sound delicious but her love & efforts for her child are awesome.

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