Kokoro Care Packages – the heart and soul of Japan shipped directly to your door

Kokoro Care Packages – the heart and soul of Japan shipped directly to your door

by Sarah B. Hodge and Lillian Rowlatt
Stripes Okinawa

Are you stationed in Japan but stumped by how to choose (or use) Japanese ingredients? Live overseas but are constantly disappointed by the lack of quality Japanese products available? Kokoro Care Packages delivers the heart and soul of Japan directly to your door.

Founded by Lillian Rowlatt and Aki Sugiyama in 2018, Kokoro Cares is a subscription box that curates small-batch, artisanal items from family producers across Japan. There are several themed packages to choose from, including the monthly Nourishing Essentials Care Package and the quarterly Seasonal Delights Care Package.

Each Nourishing Essentials Care Package contains 5-6 premium foods, while Seasonal Delights features 7 or more along with an artisanal gift. If you are new to Japanese cooking, the CREATIVE BEGINNINGS: Redefining “Wa” Care Package (Japanese Cooking Essentials) is highly recommended and contains premium soy sauce from Shiga prefecture, rice vinegar, shio koji, dashi powder, yuzu miso and shichimi spice. Previous subscription themes have included regional and seasonal delights from across Japan as well as sakura, matcha, yuzu, and vegetarian-friendly packages. All packages include an English brochure with descriptions of the items, photos, recipes, and stories behind the producers, and worldwide shipping is available.

Kokoro Care Packages kindly provided us the July Nourishing Essentials Okinawa: Tastes from the Tropics Care Package to try. Okinawa’s colorful, tropical cuisine blends a variety of international influences, and Okinawan longevity can be attributed to a diet rich in sea vegetables, tofu, and vegetables. Traditional medicinal foods, called “nuchigusui” or yakuzen, include local medicinal herbs and spices believed to balance the body’s energy.

The “Tastes from the Tropics” package included chinbin crepe mix (and a recipe for chinbin madeleines), mozuku udon noodles, shikuwasa juice, awamori chili paste, kokuto (Okinawa brown sugar) and black sesame jam, and spring turmeric and black rice blend teas. In addition to information on each of the producers, Kokoro Care Packages also provides information about suggested uses and recipes.

I had the chance to connect with cofounder Lillian Rowlatt online, and wanted to learn more about this unique women-owned business and their mission. According to Lillian, Kokoro Care Packages began as a way of sharing local authentic foods from Japan. “As someone who is half-Japanese, I grew up with my mother’s home cooking. I love the taste that came from simple and seasonal quality ingredients. But as anyone who’s been to Japan knows, most of the Japanese food available outside of Japan tends to be either the same common items or of low quality. We wanted to share the true dynamic flavors of Japan while introducing people to tastes they may not have tried before. We also wanted to connect people to the local Japanese farmers and producers behind our products and to help support their traditions and communities. For us, food is more than what’s on a plate. It’s an experience that can connect you to the people around your table as well as the people, land and philosophies that created it.”

Kokoro translates as “heart” in Japanese, yet like many Japanese words, has a richer meaning. It represents spirit, soul, and emotion - the strong connections that come from the heart. “When receiving our Care Packages, we want people to have the same feeling they would get if a loved one had sent them a literal care package - the comfort of knowing that someone is thinking of them and the heartwarming feelings that only food can bring.” Lillian explains.

A great deal of thought went into designing a logo that represented the idea of “kokoro” and the deeper meaning behind each care package. Designer Jen Snow of Jen Snow Design incorporated elements of traditional Japanese imagery into the cherry blossom-shaped logo that “shows how different people and their hearts can come together to create something beautiful.”

Like any startup, the Kokoro Care Packages team faced some hurdles along the way. The COVID-19 global pandemic posed some unique challenges for the young company. Lillian adds: “Figuring out the logistics of shipping food to 35+ different countries was certainly one of them and then having Japan Post, our partner and carrier, suddenly announce that they were temporarily having to suspend shipping to many countries, including the US, due to the current pandemic was definitely another. Thankfully we were able to come up with a unique solution to ensure that most of our community could continue to receive the Care Packages they had come to love.”

Tokyo-based co-founder Aki Sugiyama personally sources each of the products and connects with the farmers and producers who create them. Finding small-batch, artisanal products that are chemical-free and made with top-quality ingredients is at the core of how Kokoro Care Packages chooses their products. They always seek to partner with producers who share their passion for local specialties that aren’t mass-produced, are made as traditionally as possible and have a unique backstory.

For example, Yasahi Ume Yasan, an ume (Japanese plum) farmer, is one of the less than 1% of ume producers in Wakayama prefecture to have passed rigorous organic certifications. Marunaka, a soy sauce brewer, has preserved their family tools, traditions and even their live koji for over 200 years to make a soy sauce that takes three years to brew. Toyokuniya, a family-run farm, grows a rare domestic tsukui soybean which is sweeter and richer than regular soybeans and is the base for many of their creative and delicious products. And Vegetable Park, a farm run by a young couple that wanted to share the harvests from their land with their local community, hand-makes an organic brown rice jam without added sugar that is naturally sweetened by fermenting brown rice.

 

Q & A with Lillian Rowlatt, co-founder of Kokoro Care Packages:

What kind of regional and local Japanese products or foods would you like Stars and Stripes readers to know more about?

“There is so much depth and flavor in Japanese food. I would first like people to experience the true taste of some of the foods they may already know. We also strive to introduce people to new foods through our subscription Care Packages which come with a mix of known and not-so-common foods. We want people to expand their palette to incorporate new tastes as well as textures. Japanese food always has a meaning that goes beyond the food on your plate.”

What’s your favorite care package that you’ve curated so far and why?

“I honestly fall in love with each of our Care Packages. I’m based in LA so I actually don’t get to taste some of our products until they get delivered to me, just like everyone else, and they tend to taste much better than even I could have imagined! Some of our themes around a certain flavor, whether it’s sakura, yuzu or matcha, are always a delight because you get to see just how versatile these ingredients are.

I’m also really enjoying our current themes focusing on different regions throughout Japan. We recently featured Tohoku which was really special to us given the devastation the area had experienced due to the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. Sharing how resilient the locals are and how they were able to rebuild was such an honor. We just featured Okinawa, which is always a favorite given the unique mix of cultural flavors and tropical ingredients, and Kyoto. Next up we’ll be showcasing Kyushu in September, Yuzu in October and Kanagawa in November!

We want to introduce people to areas they may not have visited before or heard of to showcase how each area has its own unique specialties based on their local ingredients. It also helps people to travel with their taste buds at a time when most of us can’t visit Japan.”

What’s your favorite recipe featured on the Kokoro Cares website? (https://kokorocares.com/pages/recipes)

“Cooking Japanese food can seem intimidating to some, so I love that our recipes show how easy and fun it can be to make. Our gyoza recipe is a great way to make these traditional Japanese potstickers - crispy on the outside and hot and juicy on the inside, and our hiroshimayaki recipe is a classical regional dish from Hiroshima.

We also like to encourage people to experiment in the kitchen and to know that you don’t always have to cook Japanese food the traditional way. You can create your own dishes such as our Udon Alla Puttanesca, which uses udon noodles in a classic Italian pasta dish.”

To sign up for your own Kokoro Care Packages subscription, head over to https://kokorocares.com/ or follow along on Instagram at www.instagram.com/kokorocares.

Happy cooking!

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