Toraya is one of the most important and historic confectionery establishments in Japan. Records show that Toraya has served the Imperial family as early as the 16th century. When the Imperial court was transfered from Kyoto to Tokyo, Toraya followed the court and moved its headquarters to Tokyo (1869). Today Toraya employs around 800 people with 150 artisans, and maintains laboratories in Gotemba at the foot of Mount Fuji, Minatoku, and two in Kyoto.
You have worked for 12 years with the Toraya Group in Paris. What are some of the changes you have seen over the years?
When I arrived, the French had very little knowledge about Japan or Japanese cuisine, and they knew even less about wagashi (Japanese pastry). So in the beginning, most of our customers were Japanese tourists. Over the years Japanese food and pop culture entered into France, and people started to develop interest in wagashi as well.
The Paris boutique opened 31 years go. At the time, they used to sell the same lines of products as those in Japan. But in 1997 we remodeled the boutique, and we used the occasion to change our offerings. We hired external consultants and developed some new pastries for the French market. We also added lunch menus.
I have seen, over the years, French clients becoming accustomed to Japanese food in general. Today 80% of our clients are French. Many French like matcha tea, and you find many who prefer green tea to coffee.
How do the French react in general to wagashi?
The main ingredient for wagashi is an (sweet azuki bean paste). In Europe there is a strong image that beans are salty food. So they are shocked when they are confronted with beans that have been sweetened. There are a few ways of making an, but Koshi-an (smooth and soft an) is most popular among the French. They say it resembles crème de marron.
Historically, wagashi developed alongside the tea ceremony. The pastry makers tried to subdue the taste in order not to over-power the flavor of the tea because the tea was the main offering. Wagashi was an accompaniment. The French are used to a large range of pastries with strong, distinct flavors. So they find that. while wagashi is visually pleasing, they all tend to taste somewhat the same.
Do you think the hurdle for the French to appreciate wagashi is in the sensibility?
Perhaps it has to do with the sensibility of taste. I think yokan (a thick jellied dessert made of red bean paste, agar, and sugar) is the least understood and unappreciated by the French. 30 years ago when the boutique opened, the clients used to ask whether yokan was a bar of soap. A black square pastry does not appeal to the French. Also the gelatinous texture of agar-agar is difficult for them. Those who can appreciate yokan tend to be either people who have spent some time in Japan or those who are health conscious. Kudzu is also not appreciated because it has a rubbery texture.
What the French seems to like the most is our seasonal nama-gashi (a type of moist wagashi containing an.) They especially tend to like pastries made with mochi-gome (glutinous rice). Abekawa-mochi and gyuhi (a softer variety of mochi and both are made from either glutinous rice) tend to do better. Also with manjyu, the French tend to prefer softer an. They like it even more if you add some flavors to it. For instance, yomogi-manjyu does better than regular manjyu. Our Parisian line manjyu with marron galcé is very popular.
Are all pastries offered in the Paris boutique made in your laboratory here?
We import yokan and oshiruko (azuki bean soup) because they keep for a long time. We choose to import them because the water in France is too rich in mineral calcite and is very hard. You can’t make good tasting an with hard water. Since an is the most vital ingredient in wagashi, we bring an that is made at the Toraya laboratory located at the foot of Mount Fuji. For other pastries, we import the primary ingredients from Japan and make them here in the boutique.
Have things been difficult after the problems in Fukushima, considering you import practically everything from Japan?
After the Fukushima radiation disaster, there are very strong regulations imposed on all tea imports originating from Japan. They do a sample check twice for every shipment, first in Japan and then when it arrives in France. The regulations are not limited to tea, and all businesses importing perishable goods from Japan are incurring significant burden in terms of time, fees and losses. But these are all necessary steps to ensure the safety for our customers. We are grateful to our customers who place trust in Toraya and continue to frequent our maison.
How many wagashi do you make per day?
We offer 5 varieties of seasonal namagashi every month. I make about 100 to 150 pieces per day, and 250 to 300 pieces on Saturdays.
The wooden molds used in wagashi is an art in itself. Do you make pastries using the wooden molds?
Yes, we often do. We have one namagashi this month made using a mold.
How many molds do you have here in Paris?
We don’t use all of them, but we have over 100 in stock. Most of the molds we use here are ones we were given from our laboratories in Japan. When our New York boutique closed, all of their molds were sent here also.
We rarely use new molds. We have ordered some new molds from Japan in the past, but what I’ve noticed is that the molds made with ancient woods are better than those made with newer ones. This is because the humidity is very low in France, so the wood dries out quickly and the mold become deformed. This doesn’t happen with the molds that have been around for a while because they are already dry and they are stable.
Wagashi reflects seasonal transitions. There are enormous subtleties in the Japanese sensibility because Japan used to divide a year into not 12 months but 72 seasons. Do you make products in Paris that reflect change of season in France?
Yes. This is the fifth year that we offer our galette des rois in January. Our galette is made with an almond paste containing koshi-an and yuzu-cha (finely sliced yuzu peel). We also make Toraya’s original feve each year, which is very popular. This is our original recipe, together with our macarons, and we contract out the baking. (Interviewer’s comment: Japanese pastries are not baked.)
You offer some fusion products, pastries that are not traditional containing Western ingredients. Are you responsible for developing these products?
There are some that were developed by the external consultants when we remodeled our boutique in 1996. Since then, I have been introducing new products, such as manjyu with marron glacé, a cake with azuki and marron glacé, yokan with pear and caramel, yokan with apricots … I try to come up with products that French clients can consume easily while containing some Japanese ingredients. It’s a way to slowly introduce Japanese ingredients. We don’t make things that depart too much from wagashi.
Of all the pastries you make, what do you enjoy making the most?
I really like making dorayaki, which is called “Yoya-no-tsuki” at Toraya. Dorayaki is not considered a pure traditional wagashi, so it is not offered in Japan by our maison. So being able to make dorayaki is sort of a privilege. It takes a lot of training to make dorayaki. It takes my trainees about 2 years to be able to make them properly. The scooping technique is difficult to master, and there is a spoon especially designed for making dorayaki.
Dorayaki is a very typical Japanese pastry, but it’s very different from the traditional pastries. Where did dorayaki come from?
Pastries that contain a lot of eggs, like dorayaki, castella, and bolo came from Portugal.
Do you notice that your pastries are different each day?
Yes, they are always slightly different. There are differences in humidity and temperature everyday, so there are subtle differences that usually can’t be detected by the client. With namagashi, there can be a difference just with a slight variation in the way you mix the ingredients. When things turn out well, I am really happy. When I succeed in making something that I am proud of, I feel like they are my own children and I want to make everyone taste it.
Toraya is well known for its historical relationship with the imperial family. Are there special artisans who are dedicated to making wagashi for the court?
No, there are no specific designations, but there are a number of the most experienced artisans who are normally assigned to the duty.
When the imperial family moved from Kyoto, the old capital of Japan to Tokyo, Toraya also moved its headquarters to Tokyo (1869). What are the main differences between pastries in Kyoto and those in Tokyo?
The pastries are the same, but the ingredients are different. In Tokyo (Kanto region), you use “nerikiri” and in Kyoto (Kansai region), you use “konashi.” Konashi is based on wheat. Since Toraya is originally from Kyoto, our fundamental recipe uses konashi.
Is the Toraya’s wagashi distinct from other Kyoto wagashi?
Toraya’s wagash is known to be slightly harder, sweeter, and have a clean after-taste. So I try to make wagashi that are slightly harder. There is a general tendency to make things less sweet in Japan these days, but our long-standing elderly customers favor the sweetness in our pastries. If we try to reduce the sweetness, our clients will immediately respond, “This is not the taste of Toraya.”
Are there things about wagashi that are misunderstood by the French?
The French customers say that wagashi is too sweet. But traditional wagashi doesn’t contain things like butter and cream. The ingredients derive from vegetables. So the sweetness may be more pronounced, but they contain less sugar and calories, and are healthier than French pastries. For instance, azuki contains twice as much polifenoles than grapes.
Do French patissiers take interest in wagashi?
There are a number of French patissiers who either own a boutique or work in Japan, so I think there are quite a few who are familiar with wagashi. However, some say wagashi is not very interesting because there are not enough variations in ingredients and tastes in comparison to French pastries.
Perhaps it will still take some more time for wagashi to be understood and appreciated in France. But it also took long time for the French to appreciate sushi, and now everyone eats sushi.
Yes, I think it is difficult to introduce food culture into a foreign soil. Especially in the case of wagashi, it is said to be an art of 5 senses. It is tied in very intimate ways to the Japanese culture. So people need to understand the background first in order to really understand what wagashi is. It’s hardly an obvious item that you can just display on a window and expect people to purchase.
Today, there are French customers who ask, “There is Toraya in Japan too?” It took us 31 years to arrive to this stage. We need to have a long-term vision to have our products be accepted and appreciated on a foreign soil. It’s something that you need to have a lot of patience with. Toraya is a maison with a 5 Century history. We hope that our Paris boutique will also become something that will loved by the Parisians over many centuries.
(Interview: Eri Ikezi, 7 September 2011, Paris)
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