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A little bit of Tokyo in a (bento) box

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For almost 20 years, Japanese chef Mamoru Aizawa has been operating a small but successful restaurant hidden away in the Bus Interchange on East Row in the heart of Civic.

Entering Iori Japanese Restaurant is like slipping into a side-street in Tokyo.

But like almost every other restaurant and café in Canberra, Iori has had to change to keep up with the COVID-19 pandemic, and Aizawa has adapted to the times by ensuring Japanese food lovers can now conveniently enjoy a little bit of Tokyo in their living rooms at any time of day.

By working six days a week and 16 hours a day, Aizawa has opened a new takeaway line of bento boxes that are being sold exclusively by the Ainslie IGA.

“It has been challenging, yes, but I am grateful for our loyal customers,” says Aizawa, who trained as a chef in Tokyo before migrating to Australia in 1989 at aged 19 to work at Newcastle’s Kitami (which is still going strong 30 years on).

He worked in Japanese restaurants in Kingston and Dickson before establishing Iori, which has a dedicated clientele who love the authentic and unpretentious feel to the place—not to mention the freshest seafood.

Iori is a traditional Japanese eatery, with dishes such as Wagyu beef tataki or eggplant Nasu Dengaku and an astounding selection of almost 50 sushi rolls from which to choose. Those adventurous eaters may like to try the eel or ox tongue.

Dishes come beautifully presented by staff wearing kimonos. You can also knock yourself out with a few good sakes if you choose.

The move to set up takeaway and to stock bento boxes was a logical step when restaurants could no longer take customers, and Iori is also doing contact-free takeaway through the back alley. The bento boxes have proved popular and will continue while the restaurant can only take a limited number of customers.

Aizawa has been cooking since the age of 14 and qualified in Tokyo at the age of 18 before moving to Australia. One of his deepest regrets was that his father’s poor health meant he could not travel to Australia to enjoy his son’s food at Iori.

“Whenever I cook, I try to cook the best as if I cook for my dad.”

Meanwhile, Aizawa has conscripted his 19-year-old son Leo to help him when he opens the doors to his kitchen each morning at 8 am to start preparing his boxes.

He does classic Sushi Bentos with a selection of fresh seafood, Yofu Bentos which include Westernised selections including pork schnitzel, Japanese fried chicken and teriyaki chicken, as well as Vegetable Bentos which include vegan rolls and tempura vegetables. He also prepares platters made-to-order combining whatever a customer wants.

After about two hours of prep, he then delivers his stock to Ainslie before heading back to the restaurant to do his usual shift.

It does leave little time to spend with his wife and daughter Alyssa, who is just five. But Aizawa is hopeful the industry will rebound before too long and he hopes his customers can stay satisfied via his bento boxes before he opens up all of his usual tables and Iori returns to its usual Tokyo-like state of busyness.

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