ONTARIO – On an early Tuesday morning, volunteers with the Japanese American Citizens League gather at the kitchen at the Four Rivers Cultural Center for a monthly ritual that started five years ago. 

Working in stations, the volunteers painstakingly assemble bento boxes, first with a layer of rice, followed by a meat, vegetables and a dessert. The bento meals are made according to washoku, a reference to the principles that govern traditional Japanese cuisine and based in balancing colors, flavors, and cooking techniques.

Once assembled, about 85 Japanese box lunches will be delivered to the homes of Japanese senior citizens in the western Treasure Valley – including Ontario, Nyssa, Vale, Payette, Weiser and Fruitland.

This tradition was started in 2014 by Howard Matsumura, chef and owner of Matsy’s Restaurant in Ontario, to bring a Japanese community meal site to serve older generations of Japanese Americans in the area.

But when plans for the meal site fell through, Matsumara and members of the Japanese American Citizens League started the bento lunch program. 

Mike Iseri, a close friend of Matsumara and league member, said the bento lunches initially went to older league members who were shut-ins or in assisted living. 

“The bento meals tend to be very simple, and other times the meal is dressed up,” said Iseri, who regularly volunteers to assemble and deliver the bento boxes. “The food is true to Japanese form. It’s a throwback to old comfort food.”

Over the last five years, the league has served over 4,400 bento lunches, including 1,000 last year.

The painstakingly assembled single-portioned meals in partitioned containers also have always been free, according to Iseri. 

“The older generation of Japanese people have done so much for us, this community,” said Iseri. “This is a way to thank them for all their support.” 

Iseri said the program is supported by a solid group of league members who pitch in every month by donating food items or volunteering their time.

“There’s a guy who donates sashimi once a year so that we don’t have to buy it, all desserts are always donated, and none of drivers won’t ever take gas money,” said Iseri.

On top of that, the people who receive a bento box often donate money, said Iseri.

“For those of us who volunteer for this, especially those doing deliveries, get to see that the people who receive a bento box look forward to it,” said Iseri. “They really appreciate it.”

Bento lunch volunteers. Front row, from left: Mary Ann Murata, Bob Komoto, Lonnie Woo, Kaylene Saito, Teresa Fetherolf and Carol Tolman. Back row, from left: Tom Greco, Dave Mizuta, Howard Matsumura, Mike Iseri and Arlene Hiuga. (Submitted photo)

Kristine de Leon: 541-473-3377 or news@malheurenterprise.com.

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