Ricky Okamura takes piping hot steamed sticky rice flour and fashions it into circular globs, exhibiting the masterful skill of mochi-making.
“I’m making blueberry mochi,” he said, “because blueberries are in season, and I wanted to try something different.”
The Okamura brothers of San Francisco Japantown’s Benkyodo Company are continuing a tradition of Japanese confectionary making that began in 1906 when their grandfather opened the original shop.
The business has continued since then, only stopping when the family was incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II.
Today Benkyodo is the only Japanese confectioner in San Francisco. Every delight is made by hand, using long-standing family recipes.
Benkyodo is also a coffee shop and luncheonette, where customers sit and chat with the shopkeepers.
“A lot of Asian food fanatics frequent here,” said Okamura. “Surprisingly, we seem to have more Chinese customers than Japanese lately. This is probably due to the declining number of Japanese immigrants in the Bay Area.”
The art of mochi and manju-making begins in the early morning hours each day. The company uses imported Japanese machinery and ingredients from California. “This mochi-ko (rice flour) is from California. The beans are Chinese beans. We don’t pound mochi rice like in many Japanese recipes,” Okamura said.
Okamura comes up with original ideas for his mochi, often based on seasonal change. The two new latest seasonal flavors at the shop are the apple manju and blueberry mochi.
The blueberry mochi consists of an initial combination of mochi (sticky rice cake) and blueberry jam. The mochi is then filled with shiro-an (smooth, sweet, white lima bean paste) mixed with blueberry jam and two fresh blueberries.
“It is a similar concept to the strawberry mochi, which is really popular. But this is not strawberry season — so we decided to try blueberry.”
The blueberry mochi has a fresh, fruity flavor and juicy texture.
The apple manju, another fall creation, is made with flour and is baked with a sweet apple filling. “It tastes a bit like apple pie,” a Japanese customer said. “It is very fitting for the season — it’s a cultural fusion manju!” she added.
“We have had good feedback about the apple manju,” said Bobby Okamura, Ricky Okamura’s brother. “People seem to like it, even if it’s not a very traditional style.”
Although mochi is a “luxury item,” Benkyodo offers “a reasonable price,” said Ricky Okamura. “At just a dollar a piece, they are a bargain.” Indeed, a box of Japanese confectionary in San Francisco can cost around $40.
Apart from being both tasty and affordable, Benkyodo confectionary is a cherished part of the long-standing Japanese American community.
With businesses closing around Japantown, a halt in Japanese immigration and the ongoing global recession, can shops like Benkyodo continue?
“My kids all studied hard at universities, so I’m not sure if they want to continue this business,” said Ricky Okamura.
His daughter, Jenna, is temporarily helping out. “My sister is working, my brother doesn’t seem to be interested in the mochi-making business,” she said.
Jenna Okamura’s own future with Benkyodo, however, has yet to be determined.
“I never say never,” she said with a smile.
For more information about Benkyodo Company, call (415) 922-1244. The shop is located at 1747 Buchanan Street in San Francisco’s Japantown. Visit the website www.benkyodocompany.com.