People who love red-bean cakes often say Japanese sweets are healthy, but the truth of course is, they’re loaded with sugar. That’s what helps preserve them, says Mari Masuda, the madame of Tokutarou sweets bakery. She also lets you know, without a hint of reserve, that she is aged 74. You can’t help thinking … she must be both very sweet and healthy! And why wouldn’t you be proud?
She apologises for her English, although of course there is no need to, since you are in her world. When you ask what’s special about the enigmatic cube-shaped sweet with the white crust, she gives a quick lesson in how they are made: shaped from beans that are sugar-simmered in their skins, unlike most of the other fillings for which the beans are peeled. Then coated with an envelope of flour, water and salt, and baked on a tray of copper, not iron, as iron heats unevenly.
They are called kintsuba. Tokutarou’s kintsuba are famous for not being too sweet. That’s why Madame Masuda suggests you eat them promptly. The sweet itself is like a primitive, modernistic, asymmetrical, dumpling-size block. It seems to hover in outer space, its wonky edges and airy grey-white skin stretched tight and bubbly over its unctuous purple insides. Bite through the slight resistance of the covering, and the texture is warm, smooth, grainy and wholesome. They cost mere pennies, less than 150-yen for one. You can buy some for friends and eat one in the corner by the window, where there is a bench and a water cooler.
The shop in Asakusa 3-chome has been running for a century and a half, and Madame’s grandson, aged 9, is on track to be the fifth generation. It is also their home, recently rebuilt in a contemporary-traditional style. You would have walked straight past if you hadn’t got talking to the master, having a smoke break outside his kitchen.
Customers come in and chat loudly. The wooden seat and water are welcoming, and Madame offers you some alcohol hand wipes when you ask if you can eat a sweet at the counter. The atmosphere is old-world, reminiscent of Kyoto in its elegance but there is a sense of something spontaneous, something more fun. Somehow it feels a lot like Edo.
4 Responses to Cosmic Confection
Hi, Mark Robinson! I am Thanh, and I come from Vietnam. I like reading about food culture around the world, and once i found your book about Izakaya in Japanese Library. In future, I want to become an journalist of food, like you. May I ask you that how come you become an cuisine journalist? If you can answer, i will really appreciate. Thank you.
Thanks for your message Thanh! I’m not sure how to answer. I don’t make a living just from food journalism. But you can get on some kind of path by following your interest, do what delights you, and maybe try to find a job related to media, and just write, for yourself, for anyone. Things lead to things and something good is bound to happen. By the way when I started there was no internet and no blogs, now there is an easy way to publish. Good luck!
Thanks for your kindly reply. So, for yourself it like what you want to do is write, and then Izakaya is one of your favourite things, so you write a book about it, is’n it? I always want to work and write in food’s field, but somtimes it seem that I dont know where should I start. From now I will think carefully about your words. Thanks again, for commented me.
Yes Thanh, I was basically a freelance writer and editor. I was working on other people’s books when the man who hired me at the publisher suggested i do a food book. So it happened like that. He happened to be a former colleague from a city magazine that I had worked on in the past so we knew each other (thanks Greg!) and I had worked on a range of stories for the magazine including about food. So something led to something. Wishing you the best.