When 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.)
“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
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.”
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.”