Saturday, July 01, 2006

Toraya, old and new

One of the most fascinating aspects of wagashi, or traditional Japanese confectionary, is their potential to appeal to all five senses, of sight, smell, touch, taste and, perhaps surprisingly, sound.

On a recent visit to Toraya's tearoom in Kyoto, I came across the lyrically named Sawabe no Hotaru, shown above, seasonal to the summer months. Sawabe, meaning clumps of grass growing by a river, is the tangle of pale green chestnut cream, and the glow of hotaru fireflies, are expressed by the tiny cubes of jelly shimmering on top. Cutting through the delicate mound (the interior reveals white and red azuki bean paste) you can almost hear the rustle of cool river breeze passing through the leaves.

Similarly, Toraya's grand classic is a yokan (crushed azuki set in kanten seaweed gelatin) poetically titled Yoru no Ume, meaning "Night Plum." In addition to the visual reference (the sliced yokan surface evokes pale plum blossoms rising up against the dark sky) the name suggets the barely perceptible sound of petals falling to the ground in the dead of the night. Needless to say, to hear wagashi they must be eaten in silence.

Back in Tokyo, I visited Toraya Cafe, the wagashi-maker's forray into fusional "up-dated" confectionary. On the menu: a tasting plate of three different types of paste -- soybean/pistachio, red bean and white sesame -- to be spread on wafers made from azuki hull, a sesame meringue and kinako (toasted soybean powder) biscuit, accompanied by a glass of soymilk kanten jelly topped with azuki sauce. I strained my ears (difficult with the ambiance music) -- the sweets remained quite mute.

Toraya Cafe at Omotesando Hills (Tokyo) tel. 03-5785-0533
Toraya Tea Salon in Ichijo (Kyoto) tel. 075-441-3113


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