Thursday, August 28, 2008


Day thirty-eight: Konpeito

European priests who traveled to Japan in the early days could never be assured of a warm welcome, so one priest who arrived in 1569 took along some sugar-coated insurance--a glass jar of Portuguese confeito, small candy balls covered in distinctive bumps. Shogun Oda Nobunaga was so impressed with the offering that he gave the priest permission to stay and proselytize.

Today I had a crash course on konpeito (as confeito are known in Japan) from Nakata Tomoichi, a professor of Mathematics at Chukyo University in Nagoya, and the founder and president of the konpeito fan club. Nakata is the author of many scholarly articles on the peculiar mathematical properties expressed by the candy's bumpy surface, as well as a charming children's book on all things konpeito.

The first requirement for konpeito is a tiny core--a sugar granule or rice particle are used today, but in the past it could have been a sesame seed or a bit of cinnamon. These particles are tossed around in a huge rotating copper drum. A tube at the top dribbles sugar syrup onto the baby konpeito as a gas flame heats the drum from underneath. The confectioner has to keep a close eye on the drip rate, rotation speed and temperature during the two weeks it takes for the seed to grow into a spiky full-sized sweet; things can go wrong at any point, and if they do the entire batch must be thrown out.

For centuries sugar was so expensive that konpeito were eaten only by the elite or on special ocassions. Konpeito's golden age came in the latter half of the Edo period, when increased sugar production and importation brought prices down. During the Taisho period, the Imperial Family still gave konpeito as gifts, but they were often packed in shaped silver boxes. Konpeito are still served today in some particularly formal versions of the tea ceremony, and may be given to guests at weddings and other happy ocassions.

During and after World War II sugar was again so scarce that Nakata, born in 1944, can clearly remember tasting granulated sugar for the first time ("Mama, this salt is sweet!"). Sugar was reserved mainly for soldiers, who consumed it in a variety of products, including konpeito. Military researchers conducted a study in which three groups of soldiers were issued with different treats: biscuits alone, biscuits and korizatou (a candy that resembles ice), or biscuits and konpeito. The konpeito group exhibited markedly higher productivity and morale; when questioned, they said that the konpeito reminded them of their families and hometowns, and therefore of their motivation for fighting. Today the military museum connected with the infamous Yasukuni shrine has a collection of soldiers' konpeito containers.

Although konpeito-like sweets are made in many countries, there are only ten manufacturers still scattered across Japan. Members of Nakata's konpeito club seek to keep the tradition alive; the only criterion for membership is that one must eat and enjoy konpeito wherever possible. The club's diverse international membership also underscores Nakata's belief that the random but uneven formation of konpeito's sugar spikes mirror the unpredictable currents that bring people together.

If you feel like joining the hunt for quality konpeito, Nakata suggests that you look for:
an overall rounded shape (not flat or oblong)
more spikes (27 is ideal)
translucency (opaque compeito have a high cornstarch content)
a dense, crisp, "shaki" texture (rather than crumbly "gusha")
color that leans towards pastel rather than neon

That's Nakata-san below, with two origami konpeito, and here's his homepage:

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