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Sweetly authentic

Minamoto Kitchoan brings Japanese culture, flavors to Palo Alto

It's well known that there are five principle tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory, or what the Japanese call umami. While umami, found in foods like slow-cooked meats and soy sauce, is well-celebrated in Japan cuisine, a specialty Japanese dessert shop at Stanford Shopping Center is highlighting one of the other four tastes: sweetness.

Minamoto Kitchoan, also known as K. Minamoto, opened in Palo Alto in late 2016. The shop sells wagashi, or traditional Japanese desserts that are customarily consumed with tea. The store is a part of a larger company that well known in Japan, said Aco Foster, who has worked at the Palo Alto bakery since its opening. The company chose to open in Palo Alto because of the wide range of people who live in and visit the city, Foster said.

When Minamoto first opened in the United States more than 10 years ago, the company wanted to preserve the Japanese style of wagashi and introduce the sweets to American customers who are more often used to a "westernized" version of Japanese desserts, Foster said.

Foster, who grew up in Hiroshima and came to the United States in 2008, said she frequented Minamoto Kitchoan while living in Japan. The Palo Alto location is "very much the same" as the Japanese stores, she said.

Traditional Japanese desserts often vary in appearance and taste from most Americans' perception, Foster said. Take mochi, whose filling is traditionally made from red bean paste rather than ice cream.

"Most people still think mochi is ice cream, so we want them to try the traditional mochi and traditional Japanese sweets," Foster said."It's a different kind of experience."

Japanese chocolate is also distinct from American chocolates like Godiva or Hershey's -- less sweet, said Foster.

Foster sees the way Americans and Japanese interpret those five flavors -- sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami -- differently, which contributes to differences in tastes and preferences between cultures. For customers who might be new to Japanese desserts, Foster recommends trying the wagashi one at a time to get a sense of each kind.

Minamoto carries multiple different kinds of wagashi, including varieties of mochi, steam cakes, sponge cakes and usagi san, a sweet white bean cake flavored with yuzu, a citrus fruit. The shop also carries savory options like kaishoyaki scallops, roasted crackers flavored with scallop, shrimp and crab.

"Everything will seem very new, but they could start with the steam cakes or the bite-sized mochi, which are both best sellers," Foster said. "Right now everyone likes matcha (tea), which we also carry, so that might be easier to start with."

Desserts are displayed in the glass cases that line the back and sides of the store, as well as on tiny, intricate island stands on the floor. The store's inventory changes seasonally, as does the way it is decorated. For May, when Boy's Day is celebrated in Japan, tiny traditional tsuri or hanging dolls were strung from the ceiling in neat lines. Kabuto helmets, the kind samurai would wear, lined the walls: in Japan, most boys receive them from their grandparents in celebration of the day, Foster said.

The desserts, in their various forms and decorative packaging, add color to the minimalist, white-walled store.

The store imports everything from Japan in a bulk shipment every two months, Foster said, and the menu changes depending on availability and time of year. She acknowledged that Minamoto is expensive, with prices ranging from $3.60 for a single piece of mochi to $27 for a box of baumkuchen, a layered crepe-like cake, to $50 for 18 sakura senbei, two cream-filled cookies.

Foster said that Minamoto's customer base is diverse. Many have previously visited a Minamoto in Japan and seek out the Palo Alto store after experiencing it abroad, she said, as the company has locations in Tokyo's major airports. In the United States, Minamoto has storefronts in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City, and a franchise location opened recently in Plano, Texas.

One of the store's goals is to "emphasize Japanese culture" and its difference from generalized "Asian" culture, Foster said.

"Each Asian country has a different culture and history, and we just want to emphasize how different they are," she said.

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