Monday, January 14, 2013

Tochinomi Daifuku (chestnut and red bean)

People have been telling me about various "Japan Towns" since I returned to the U.S. I'm not sure what I expected when I heard about such areas, but it really was not what I experienced. I guess that I expect "Japan Town" to feel like, well, Japan. That doesn't mean I expect that Japanese people will be milling about, staring at their phones like zombies and gawking at the white girl with piles of red-blonde hair. The truth is that, I am not sure what was missing, but I think that the atmosphere created by the crowds, cramped spaces, the frenetic activity of employees trying to look like they're performing their tasks perfectly, the constant cleaning and tidying, and the conversations in Japanese.

I've been to two "Japan Towns" since coming back home. The first was in San Jose, and I had the misfortune to go there on a Monday when, apparently, it is mainly shut down. This was a big disappointment because one of the reasons I went there was to visit their traditional sweets shop, Shuei-do. I'm not sure, but they appear to have vanished from the Japan Town web site and may have gone out of business. All I know is that the Japan Town in San Jose was so tiny that I haven't been motivated to go back on another day.

The other Japan Town that I went to recently was in San Francisco, and it has more to offer, but is still largely just a shopping arcade plus a few other shops located near the Peace Pagoda. It is definitely more interesting than the San Jose equivalent, but not as much as I'd hoped. I think I simply expect too much. As an oasis of "Japan-ness" in the U.S., it's actually pretty good. There are a lot of Japanese restaurants, several Japanese stores including a bigger, nicer Daiso than the one I frequent, a gaming arcade, and some sweets and grocery stores. However, it's all pretty streamlined. You don't get much of a real ethnic feel from it. There aren't little grubby mom and pop shops for the most part (as I hear you may experience in China Town). Of course, the Japanese aren't exactly known for doing "grubby". 

The best part for me was Benkyodo, a place selling hand-made Japanese sweets, and Nippon-ya. Nippon-ya is where I procured today's snack for review. The latter offers boxed sweets which are pretty much the same as those sold in train stations, the airport, and souvenir shops around Tokyo. It is the sort of thing I thought I'd never encounter after leaving Japan. I was a kid in a Japanese candy store when I say stacks of gift-wrapped boxes of sweets topped by the usual plastic display of samples with cutaways to show you what was inside.

There were so many options and I wanted to buy them all, but I can't really justify doing so when I am the only one who is likely to consume the contents. The prices were in the $9-$10 range for boxes with 16-24 pieces. This is incredibly reasonable and in line with the average prices in Japan. Most of the time, these cost about 1000 yen ($11.21) per box in Japan, often more than that. Someone on Yelp said that they felt these were "expensive", and they may appear to be so by U.S. standards, but I was more than happy to fork over $9.25 for a box of 20 small daifuku.

I agonized about what flavor to buy since there were many that looked appealing, but ultimately went for chestnut since it is one of my seasonal favorite. I figure the fruit flavors are likely to stick around until spring or summer, and this will vanish with the cold weather. The display promised chestnut bits in red bean paste with a hint of caramel. As you can see from the cutaway above, there aren't any chestnut bits to speak of in the one that is shown here. This was the third one I ate, and I haven't found any pieces in any of them. 

The flavor balance is definitely heavy on the mochi and red bean side and there is absolutely a hint of caramel. The chestnut flavor is very subtle, and you actually have to be looking for it. Overall, the flavor profile is not intense, but tends to settle in slowly. These are sweet enough without going overboard. I only wish there was a stronger chestnut component. The ingredients list starts with "sugar", followed by rice, and red bean and only then does it get to chestnut followed by emulsifiers and caramel. You can see what it's not so big with the chestnut. 

The main reason for selecting daifuku in my opinion is the interplay of textures, not so much the strength of the flavors. The soft chewy pillow of mochi contrasts with the smooth paste inside. This is light on the filling, but the mochi is fresh and soft. It's definitely very much on par with relatively shelf stable mochi in Tokyo. When I say "relatively shelf stable", I mean that there's an expiration date in a few months, not next year. This one expires on March 2, 2013. 

I like these, but I can't say that I adore them. I have no regrets about buying them and will enjoy eating them slowly but surely. They absolutely remind me of some of the Japanese sweets I purchased in Japan in that not every one was exactly what I wanted it to be, but they all tended to be decent enough. The main failing in these is not enough filling and not enough chestnut. They're good, but they could have, in my estimation, "should have", been better.


SusieTron FiveThousand said...

Last time I went to SF I visited Nippon-Ya. I got 3 different boxes. All were gifts and I was lucky enough to be around when two were opened so I got to try a few. :)

I did very much like the Daiso in Japan town. So much stuff!

Anonymous said...

Shuei-do is still open, they just have super funky hours. They have a Facebook page ( they always update their hours. Try again! They really are fantastic when you catch them.

The SF Japantown has changed a lot in recent years. I remember going in the late 90s/early 00s and there were a lot more "mom n pop" type stores. It's a shame, since those really were wonderful to look at. I feel like now SF Japantown's main draw is as an eating gallery and the Kinokuniya. (Also: did you know there's a Mitsuwa market and Kinokuniya branch on Saratoga Ave in San Jose? Mitsuwa has a pickle deli and occasionally runs special food events on weekends.)