Saturday, August 3, 2013

Quest for Kunpen, Part 3: Shuri Kunpen

This is the third and final post in the series "Quest for Kunpen". Please start with the first post "Quest for Kunpen, Part 1 - Why?" to understand the what and why of the project.

I came to know of these last three kunpen through gifts and recommendations from people who heard about my project. All three are from specialty stores in the Shuri area of Naha, near the very famous Shuri Castle that was the home of the ancient Ryukyuu kingdom.

I decided to buy all of them in one trip to Shuri after bringing my family to the airport for a trip to the grandparents. I wanted to get these three makes of kunpen together and really think deeply about the kunpen - a process I will call "kunpenplation" (registered copyright).

座波菓子店 Zaha Kashiten
住所 沖縄県那覇市首里石嶺町3-6-1

The first time I had Zaha kunpen was on the way home from a trip to Naha with my family. A coworker recommended Zaha Kashiten for kunpen, so I had already registered the address in Google Maps. I was in Naha, and it was late in the evening. I was not sure if the shop would be open, so I called. A woman answered. When I explained that I had driven from Onna and wanted kunpen, she told me that she would open the store for me. As I pulled into the parking space, the shutter slowly rose and a few lights went on. She went about her business while I filled a basket with 40 kunpen to share with people at work. I asked her if she was the owner, and she said she was the mother of the current president, who is the "san-dai-me" or third generation to run the store.
The second time I visited the store, I met her son, who was just as natural and friendly as his mother.
Zaha Sandaime
Now on to the kunpen.
Zaha Kunpen
The gawa is like a soft cookie, very mildly sweet and comforting. The filling is about equal in proportion to the bun and smells strongly of peanut butter. No sesame here. The texture of the filling is pasty, with just a hint of sandy sugar. All in all, the Zaha kunpen is comforting, soft, and subtle, a delightful and simple treat with milk.

新垣カミ菓子店 Arakaki Kami Kashiten
沖縄県那覇市首里 赤平町1-3-2

Having read about Arakaki Kami on the internet, I decided to visit the "honpo" or original store in Shuri. It is not a drive for the faint of heart or those who lack a car navigation system. You go through narrow, winding roads and then turn off into a two-way street that at first glance might be mistaken for a footpath,  barely affording space for even one car to pass. You coast downhill past homes and old buildings until you see the shop, which is pretty easy to miss.
Arakaki-Kami HQ
It looks like a early- or mid-Showa storefront, with a hand-painted sign, no electric banners, and only a tiny space for customers to stand before the very old glass cases. The sliding door is reluctant and squeaky, and the aluminum and glass of the storefront seems decades away from the plate glass and faux-adobe of modern flashy Okinawan tourist traps.
Half of the Sixth Generation of Arakaki-Kami and the mother of the Seventh Generation or Nanadaime
Again, the woman behind the counter was the mother of the current president, but in this case, the current president is the "nana-dai-me" or seventh generation to run the store. This family has been making traditional Ryukyuu sweets for seven generations, forgoing fads like strawberry shortcake, soft "nama" chocolate, and the more recent goya jelly to continue making only makes fives kinds of traditional Ryukyuu ceremonial sweets. And kunpen is one of them.
Arakaki-Kami Kunpen
The kunpen looks different from others, but the flavor differs even more. There is a crack on the side of each kunpen, and they are more irregular than others. The gawa smells and tastes like a good egg cookie - wholesome, simple, only slightly sweet. Very sincere, the gawa is just sweet enough. There is very, very little filling, and like many historical, traditional sweets, it is not very sweet at all. We have come to expect the super-sweetness of modern confections, mass-produced in an age of abundant, cheap corn syrup, but this filling contains both peanut butter and sesame and has that crystalline crunchiness that you find in middle-eastern sesame sweets.

The sweetness of the kunpen comes from the bun. At first impression, there seems too little filling for size of the bun, but when you taste it, you realize that any more of this filling would be overwhelming. It really is something to experience. The filling is more smoky than sweet, with a really intense sesame flavor that fills the mouth and shoots from the nose, exploding in the short moment when you hit it. The rest of the time, you are contentedly chewing through the mild bun in high-carb bliss.

Any kunpen is a bit dry without a beverage, but with a cup of straight tea - assam in my case - this kunpen was flowery, fragrant, and wonderful.

Sweets like this heighten the senses with subtle flavors and mild sweetness, letting the ingredients shine through, unlike the bludgeoning effect of some more modern creations, most of which are advertised by smug-yet-inclusive voice-overs saying, "Treat your family to the new Cro-Magnon butter-scotch and fudge brownie three-scoop ice cream sundae at Fatty Fridays. Come on a weekday and get a coupon for free dialysis with every order."

知念製菓 Chinen Seika

This was the last stop on my kunpen parade through Shuri. The store is small but new, right on the main tourist street, and behind the counter was none other than the "ni-dai-me" or second-generation president, the father of the "san-dai-me" or third generation who currently heads the company.
Chinen Nidaime
The Nidaime was wily and challenging when I asked him about kunpen. He made it clear that Shuri is the place to find real kunpen and that Chinen was very popular. I asked him about other traditional sweets, and he said that when he is asked for authentic chinsuko (a kind of Okinawan shortbread), he sends people to Arakaki-Kami, but he isn't budging on the quality of his kunpen or the new mainland Japanese sweets being introduced by his son, the Sandaime. It turns out that the new young president studied Wagashi (mainland Japanese sweets) on Honshu and is introducing new items like Yabure-manju to raise the profile of Chinen even further.
Chinen Kunpen
Now back to the Chinen kunpen. Chinen kunpen are for people who love nuts. When you open the bag, you get a wonderful puff of peanut fragrance. When you cut one in half, you can see the whole sesame mixed into the filling. The bun is chewier than most others and a little sweeter than the more traditional Arakaki-Kami kunpen. With this kunpen, the filling is the star by far. First of all, there is a lot of filling in each kunpen. And then there is the texture - you can feel the individual sesame seeds, and biting down on them changes the flavor has you chew. The filling also has that crystalline crunchiness you get in middle eastern sesame sweets, and the fragrance and flavor of the peanut butter is terrific. This is very strong, flashy, bold kunpen - sweeter and stronger than Zaha or Arakaki-Kami. The flavor holds its own with pretty much any beverage. I had this with a homemade cafe-au-lait and did not regret it one little bit.

And so I conclude my Quest for Kunpen. I very much enjoyed going in deep on this easily-overlooked part of Okinawan cuisine. I hope you try it for yourself.

This is the third of four installments:

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