In this never-ending present, a lot of people are feeling the highs and lows. And as the thought sinks in that our lives will not be returning to a routine we know and love anytime soon, the low can feel long and sticky.
Those days, I find refuge in The Michelle Obama Podcast, where the former First Lady discusses the toll so much change can take on us emotionally. In Episode Two, she speaks with award-winning journalist Michele Norris about using this pause to gain a new understanding of yourself and your relationship to the rest of the world. In their conversation, Michele reflects on what the New Normal means and gives a charge to this current life chapter:
“We don’t reach for normal, we reach for better.”
The following interview is with the founders of Heiwa World, a Japanese bento box pop-up that was built on this very idea. Saori Minakawa and Brian McGonagle not only share a deep love and respect for Japanese culture and cuisine, but a belief that we can change the world by changing the way we do business.
Heiwa World delivers delicious seasonal Japanese bento boxes directly to your door and donates 10% of monthly sales to Win NYC, one of the largest providers of shelters and supportive housing in the city with a focus on homeless families, women and children.
Photo by Amberjade Taylor of Dutch Oven Finds.
So is it okay to miss our regular routine? Absolutely.
I imagine that you too want to hug your friends, squeeze their babies, go to a concert and smile (not smize!) at a stranger.
But as we start new businesses and restart old ones, we are free to write this new chapter to be better.
And that, my friends, is something to be joyful about.
What does Heiwa World mean? How did Heiwa World come to be?
Saori: Heiwa is a Japanese word for peace and harmony and Heiwa World was born out of the 2020 pandemic. Brian and I were out of work, and it was a difficult time for both of us. The pandemic was getting worse in New York, our beloved and once-vibrant restaurant industry was completely shut down, our friends out of work...and we really missed connecting with people.
Above all, we believe in the power of food to nourish the soul. Food and hospitality is our love language. So we decided to package our love in bento boxes and share our love with people the way we know.
Your bento boxes are absolutely stunning. Is there a general guideline or approach you follow for the weekly bento?
Brian: We typically try to design our bentos to be well-balanced, seasonal, and reflect our collective knowledge/love of Japanese food. On average, each bento includes a carbohydrate, a protein, a seasonal vegetable, and a naturally fermented pickle.
The carbohydrate is typically rice-based and we like to play with different toppings or seasoning for the rice. The protein rotates every week between a meat dish and a seafood dish. The seasonal vegetables and pickles are what excites us the most as we both love vegetables and fruits and utilizing what's best every week is really inspiring for creativity.
We'll usually go to the farmer's market at least once a week for inspiration. I read long ago in a Japanese cookbook that there aren't four seasons in a year, but 52, one for each week. That thought and attention to nature really drives a lot of our creative processes and dishes.
Omotenashi, the practice of selfless service and foundation to Japanese hospitality, has always been an important aspect to your business and service style. How have you applied these practices to Heiwa’s delivery-service business model?
Saori: We believe the core of omotenashi is to be driven by care and love for others. Since day one we have had the honor of working with a wonderful organization here in NYC called Win NYC.
Working with them, we learned that 62% of NYC’s homeless are families with children. We knew there was already a homelessness crisis in NYC, and we felt it getting exacerbated by the pandemic each day. By growing our business, we’ve been able to work up to donating 10% of our entire sales each month. Being able to work with Win has been our new expression of omotenashi.
Starting a business in the middle of a pandemic and civil rights movement is HARD. From one entrepreneur to another, how have the first few months been for you and Heiwa?
Saori: In a weird way, it’s been simultaneously easier and more challenging to do this during a pandemic. The challenges are definitely there. We had planned to open a restaurant but scratched all of those plans once the pandemic hit. Investing in a brick and mortar location became completely out of the question.
It's flippin’ difficult to solely rely on our online marketing to grow the business. Whereas if we had a store in a high-traffic area, I think our dishes would speak for themselves.
Delivery is another massive challenge for every restaurateur I’ve spoken with. Delivery services take 25 - 30% out of our already small margins, so outsourcing delivery wasn’t an option for us. We’re also very risk-averse with any investments in this market.
On the other hand, I think when we were working on our restaurant business plan, we were overthinking everything! So this crisis allowed us the freedom to just get out and do it.
We opened Heiwa with very little CapEx, and everything was DIY. My incredibly talented and supportive partner, Melvin, did all of our designs and we’re so happy with them. That forced us to be creative, take risks we wouldn’t have otherwise taken, and be more carefree about it all.
We ask this to every new TKC member: what was your first or best experience with sake?
Saori: I’m allergic to alcohol and don’t normally drink alcohol, but the fondest memory I have is of drinking amazake as a kid growing up in Japan. It’s not technically alcoholic, but it’s made from the same ingredients - rice and koji.
On New Year’s Eve, my family and I would go to our local shrine to pay tribute, and they would give us this hot cup of amazake. It was really cold outside, the stars were bright in the sky, and the amazake hot and sweet - it always felt so special.
How do you approach pairing sake with food?
Saori: I think you can drink sake with absolutely everything! Unlike wine that’s made from sugary fruit, sake is made from rice which is so neutral. Of course, brewers can achieve so many variations of flavor, texture, and aromas based on the type of rice, koji, yeast, or water used, coupled with the production method.
I like to first get the weight of the sake and food balanced - with a light dish such as steamed branzino or sashimi I enjoy a delicate sake such as Katsuyama Akatsuki Junmai Daiginjo that doesn’t overpower the fish, and with a more hefty dish like BBQ or a BLT, I would choose a chewier, full-bodied sake, such as Tedorigawa Yamahai Junmai “Silver Mountain,” that can stand up to the food.
But then again sake doesn’t follow rules, so I love to break them too. Masumi Nanago is a Junmai Daiginjo, but made in the Yamahai style. It’s got a real citrusy and mineral-driven kick to it, so I love it with super-rich, buttery dishes. It really balances out the dish, like finishing a bowl of creamy pasta with lemon zest.
Can you recall one of your most memorable sake/food pairings?
Saori: Last year we did a pop-up dinner titled Ichigo Ichie out in Greenport, and Brian served a dry-aged kurobuta pork dish. Kurobuta pigs from Japan are heralded for their intensely flavored meat and fat, and when Brian dry-aged the meat, it became gamey and funky and so delicious. We paired that with Fuku Chitose Yamahai Junmai “Happy Owl” which was just SUBLIME!
The Happy Owl is a Yamahai, so it’s slowly fermented and has these amazing layers and complexities. It’s earthy, but somehow still light and elegant. Combined they made me think of a mature couple. Worldly, wise, and well-experienced, but still light-hearted and full of humor and fun!
It is so hot in New York right now. When you can’t even look at a stove, what is your go-to meal?
Saori: It’s really simple but I haven’t been able to stop making this dish since my cousin shared the idea with me. It’s more like a snack than a meal, but almost every day I’ve been eating a savory yogurt bowl.
I’ll add in really whatever but usually cucumber, tomatoes, some leftover Heiwa pickles (Brian makes changing pickles every week so I am very lucky), a handful of greens, mint, oregano, something crunchy like nuts and seeds, sesame, sumac, a dash of really good extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper, and always always the Heiwa Chili Crisp to finish. Our crisp is not too spicy, but with lots of chunky bits of fried garlic and onion, so I go in with a heavy hand!