Saturday, September 20, 2008

Kurumi Mochi II

Day sixty-one: Kurumi Mochi II
¥336/small serving

Although there are many Japanese sweets that I could happily eat all day, every day, I've been trying hard not to double up. On this occasion, however, there was no way to resist a second helping of kurumi mochi, a treat I'd already tasted up north.

Located in Sakai, a barren suburb of Osaka, and accessible via a rickety tram line, Kanbukuro justly famous for its kurumi mochi, reputedly the favorite sweet of local son and tea ceremony hero, Sen no Rikyu (died 1591). It's hard to explain the odd chill I get from having even such an attenuated bonding experience with a man who always shows up on my Fantasy Dinner Party guest list; imagine being able not only to order Shakespeare's favorite sandwich, but having it prepared by descendants of the very same chef who cut off the great man's crusts. Some people find that looking at the night sky gives them a freeing sense of their own insignificance and, consequently, of their place on the continuum of human existence. What can I say? Mochi is my night sky.

Kurumi mochi is the only item on Kanbukuro's menu. Large or small servings are available to eat in, and in summer shaved ice is offered as a topping; take-out comes in plastic tubs or old-school ceramic jars. The bite-sized balls of gooey mochi are completely submerged under a generous pour of walnut paste. Up north the paste was smooth and cream-colored with flecks of dark walnut skin; Kambukuro's paste is wet but thick, and a bright, bilious, rather unappetizing green. It was also, I suspect, sweetened with a full-flavored unrefined sugar, possibly wasambon. Curious about both the sugar and the color, I asked the waitress about the ingredients, but all she would say was "walnuts". I guess you don't stay in business for more than 5 centuries by blabbing about your secret sauce.

Rikyu's favorite dessert seems to have stood the test of time far better than his neighborhood. Wandering around in an unsuccessful attempt to spot the "ruined Sen no Rikyu residence" marked on my tourist map, I had the eerie and very un-Japanese experience of being the only person on the street. By contrast, Kanbukuro was hopping, with families and groups of friends hopping to get a table before the day's supply of mochi ran out; those who chose to could keep an eye on the ghost town outside via a bank of CCTV monitors mounted disquietingly over the tea urn.

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