Manju from Umai Do Japanese Sweets, a bakery in Seattle, Wash.
Manju from Umai Do Japanese Sweets, a bakery in Seattle, Wash. Melisa Goh/NPR
Manju (MAHN-jew) are Japanese dough buns — often sweet — made from pounded rice flour dough and flavored fillings. In Japanese culture, a box of manju is what you'd take to someone's house on a special occasion, like Children's Day. Or you might simply snack on it with a cup of tea. But manju have to be eaten fresh, and they're pretty labor intensive, so nowadays, they can be hard to find.
On Saturdays, Art Oki's mom used to take him to the local sweets shop in Seattle's Nihonmachi, or Japantown. He was 6 years old and the perfect height to stare right into the display case. But that place closed in the 1970s.
Today Oki has his own shop called Umai Do on a street that used to cut through the old Japantown. In his shop, the manju sit in tidy rows. They look like dumplings in all different colors — bubblegum pink; green tea green; shiny white. They're steamed or baked. I pick one that looks like a potato, called imogashi.
It's got "cinnamon on the outside, cake covering, with white lima bean paste in the middle. I call that my Japanese version of a snickerdoodle," Oki says.
We're taking a cross-country tour of candies from around the U.S., sampling hometown sweets that deliver a nostalgic sugar rush.
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You read that right: white lima bean paste. It's surprisingly sweet. There are also manju filled with red azuki beans, and if this makes you leery, Oki will slip into manju sales mode. Beans have been a common ingredient in Asian desserts for centuries.
"When I talk to people who are new to Japanese sweets, I remind them it's a little softer than gummy bears," he says.
I say it's like gooey rice but a better consistency. It's like getting to eat a really good Play-Doh.
After the sweets shop from Oki's childhood closed, the nearest place to get manju was in Vancouver, B.C. And when that one closed, anyone traveling to California or Hawaii would get manju requests.
"At times I would have to bring back, like, six-dozen, so that was, like, half my carry-on," Oki recalls.
These chewy morsels speak to Japanese tradition and nostalgia, as our colleagues over at KQED have reported.
"My mother would say, 'Oh, I think you'd like this one.' I went with the plain white one, and I liked the anko, the bean paste, and got hooked," Oki says.
Florangela Davila for NPR
The Umai Do Japanese Sweets bakery is popular with local Japanese Americans and Japaese tourists. Owner Art Oki is also working to grow his customer base beyond people of Japanese descent.
The Umai Do Japanese Sweets bakery is popular with local Japanese Americans and Japaese tourists. Owner Art Oki is also working to grow his customer base beyond people of Japanese descent. Florangela Davila for NPR
But getting hooked on the taste didn't mean he started baking then and there. For 30 years, Oki worked in local government as an accountant. Then he started at the bottom, apprenticing at a manju shop in Los Angeles where he learned the basics. He opened his store in Seattle only last year, and takes his sweets to cultural festivals, growing his customer base beyond those of Japanese descent. And, he says, he is learning from customers.
"The Hawaii folks actually suggested my newest item, the chi chi dango — coconut milk infused into the mochi. It tastes just like Hawaii," he says.
And for many people in Seattle, it tastes like home.
Florangela Davila for NPR
Manju-maker Art Oki uses two types of fillings, or anko: one made from lima beans and a darker one made from red azuki beans.
Manju-maker Art Oki uses two types of fillings, or anko: one made from lima beans and a darker one made from red azuki beans. Florangela Davila for NPR