Serving dessert is usually a reliable ticket to popularity. But at Tokara Japanese Confectionery, a small wholesale business in Phinney Ridge, Chika Tokara works hard to produce wagashi, traditional Japanese desserts, with the knowledge that she's got a limited audience.
It's not that the desserts aren't good; they're extraordinary. It's just that their flavor is subtle and their texture gelatinous, a combination that may challenge a palate weaned on Snickers bars. "Most of my customers are Japanese or Japanese-American who used to eat them with their mother and grandmother," Tokara says.
Wagashi are made from a combination of sugar, rice flour, and wheat, with a filling of azuki red bean paste. They come in different shapes, textures, and colors depending on the season, nearly always inspired by the colors of nature. This summer, for instance, Tokara's featuring a very pretty, nearly translucent sweet that's a gentle wash of pink and green, along with a round filled confection the color of summer peonies. At her Touryause (open house) on the 10th of every month, $10 buys you three types of seasonal sweets.
Kyoto is widely considered the birthplace of wagashi, and Tokara apprenticed in kitchens there to learn from the masters. When her husband needed to transfer to Seattle for a job nine years ago, she came along and honed her technique at home before opening her Phinney Ridge storefront this year. Her first customers were associations in need of traditional sweets for tea ceremonies, but she soon branched out to local restaurants and coffee shops specializing in Japanese flavors. Her products can be found around town at Fresh Flours, Panama Hotel Tea House, and Umi Sake House. "There's a huge Japanese-American community here," she says, explaining how her narrow culinary focus can sustain itself.
Some chefs might find a strict adherence to time-honored techniques limiting, but Tokara doesn't see it that way. "Somebody else is doing fusion sweets. I really want to introduce traditional Japanese sweets to Seattle." In general, she follows the recipes she learned in Japan to the letter, changing only the colors and names for American audiences. "People suggest their favorite designs and recipes to me a lot," she says.—Anna Roth