Saturday, August 3, 2013

Quest for Kunpen, Part 1: Why

I had just arrived in Okinawa, and I was looking through some local sweets and asking the store clerk about them, "What is this Kunpen… is it like a manju?" "Kind of," she replied, "but it has peanut butter in it." I was hooked. Having lived in Japan for 18 years, a lot of me has "gone native", but I am still hopelessly addicted to peanut butter, and the prospect of a peanut-butter-rich dessert was too good to ignore.

Kunpen, also known as Konpen or Kunpin, is an Okinawan "o-sonai-mono" or offering - special foods that are placed on a family shrine as an offering to one's ancestors. During the summer observance of Okinawa's "shiimii", which is analogous to mainland Japan's "o-bon", families gather to catch up, play with cousins, and tell thread-bare stories of shared embarrassments. The express purpose of the holiday is to pay respects to deceased family members, but it is really a way to reinforce family ties. In mainland Japan, family members gather at the home of the current head of the family, and they determine that by a combination of familial arithmetic plus tweaking for circumstance and convenience. In Okinawa, families gather to picnic at the main family tomb, and kunpen is usually a part of the meal.

One Okinawan co-worker told me that he did not like kunpen when he was younger, but as he ages, the "soboku" or plain, simple character becomes more and more pleasing. A younger Okinawan co-worker told me that for her kunpen is comfort-food - mild, familiar, and trustworthy; when she feels down or anxious, she goes to Zaha for a kunpen (see the review below), and things just seem better.

The dependability and honesty of the unchanging, unassuming kunpen became the focus of my interest. The Japanese snack food industry is aggressive about innovation and variety, turning out new flavors and gimmicks so fast that many consumers never get a chance to try a new flavor before it disappears. And the need for variety results in some pretty wild products. A few years ago, I remember feeling ill after washing down a bag of Kalbi Wasabi Beef Potato Chips with a Cucumber Sprite, but that was still better than when I tried a Cherry-Blossom Kit-Kat with a can of Nestle Sparkling Cafe - cold, sweet, carbonated black coffee. In Japan, crazy and creative snacks, gum, candy, and drinks are debuted and withdrawn all the time, but amidst it all, traditional sweets like the kunpen stay the same. They are the rocks in the tide, the bass and drums in the jazz jam, and that is why I decided to do a selfish and subjective review of as many kunpen as I could find.

Kunpen look like large, fat cookies or baked versions of Chinese steamed dim-sum buns. They consist of a bready or cookie-like "gawa" (skin) or bun and sweetened peanut butter, sesame and/or bean paste "goo" or filling in the center.

This is the first of four installments:

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