Thursday, March 5, 2009
from $3.30 each at retail outlets
$10/3 at monthly "Open House"
They say it's the reverse culture shock that really gets you, and I would have been petrified to return to Seattle after 3 months in Japan on a strict diet of wagashi (Japanese sweets) if I didn't know I could rely on tokaragashi to get me through the withdrawal pangs. Chef Tokara-san is Seattle's only professional producer of fresh, seasonal wagashi, and we are lucky to have her. So what if Tokara-san teases that I am a "wagashi freak"? After all, she's the one who enables me to get my freak on.
As a girl in Sapporo, Tokara-san was first attracted to western-style baking. Her family invested in an oven when she was in second grade (ovens still aren't all that common in Japanese homes) and from then on she was "always making sponge cake!"
As an adult, Tokara-san moved to Kyoto and learned to make wagashi. Following another relocation to Seattle, she began producing sweets for tea ceremony gatherings. I had my first Tokaragashi during a class at the Urasenke tea school in the summer of 2004; a pale green paste of young soybeans, wrapped in a rippled sheet of golden kanten jelly, "Firefly Dreaming" was like a bright spark in the shadowy tearoom. The sweet catalysed the gathering, allowing all the guests to join together in mutual delight.
Local businesses soon began to clamor for Tokaragashi, and in August 2007 Tokara-san opened her commercial kitchen in a small building on Phinney Ridge. She now travels to Japan a few times a year, returning with suitcase-loads of ingredients. She makes all her products from scratch and by herself; not many people have the patience to start cooking at 5:30, the stamina to stir for hours, and and the sensitivity to tell, just by looking, whether a sweet meets Tokara's high standards.
Tokara's products are modeled on kyōgashi, Kyoto-style artisanal sweets renowned for their abstract elegance and poetic layers of meaning. Although a complete understanding of all those layers would require a broad knowledge of Japanese history, art history, and classical poetry, Tokara-san finds that her customers understand more than enough to appreciate her designs, and that they are hungry to learn more.
Tokara-san makes slight changes to traditional designs to reflect Seattle's own seasons and flora, but she doesn't dumb her sweets down for the non-Japanese customers who make up about half of her clientele. Tokara's menu of sweets changes monthly, and this seasonality, perhaps even more than gelatinous textures or the combination of beans and sugar, has proved tough to translate to customers raised on strawberries in January; people love something one month and can't understand why its not there the next time. According to Tokara-san, wagashi remind us to live in the moment: "You have to buy now or wait a year."
Tokaragashi are available at several local restaurants and coffee shops, including Fresh Flours and the Panama Hotel. On the tenth of every month, Tokara holds a touryanse, a low-key open house that gives fans a chance to peek inside her wholesale premises. Call well ahead to reserve a box of 3 tokaragashi; pick them up any time between 1 and 6.
The sweets in the above left picture made up January's touryanse assortment. Tokara's website describes Early Plum, at the bottom, as "Soft silky mochi with White bean paste. Rice flour, white beans, sugar, coloring, wheat flour." The Crane is a "Rice sponge cake with Adzuki paste. Japanese yam potato, Adzuki, rice flour, sugar, coloring," its shape and markings suggesting those of the auspicious bird. My favorite of the bunch was the Rice sack, a "Soft bean paste candy with egg flavor. White bean, rice flour, egg, butter, sugar"; it was rich, mildly sweet, and meltingly tender.
Of the March assortment (above right), I was especially fond of Ancient Camellia (at the top): "Cinnamon flavor is everybody’s favorite. Rice flour, sugar, adzuki, cinnamon, camellia leaf." The rice paste was slightly chunky, the bean paste smooth as suede; the camellia leaf itself, sadly inedible.
6208 Phinney Avenue North
Seattle WA 98103
Tokara-san was featured on KUOW's Sound Focus program last year; hear her interview here.