The Art of Manju
In the Central District, a Japanese dessert born from nostalgia and tradition.
Art Oki is happily off his feet, sitting inside Umai-Do, his tiny Japanese sweets shop in the International District. Buzz-cut and bespectacled, the soft-spoken 60-something is Seattle to the core: born and bred on Beacon Hill, employed for 30 years as a financial analyst for the city. Now he’s retired and collecting a pension but still working—as an entrepreneur and artisan, making and selling mild, traditional Japanese sweets in an era where candy is like crack.
The slow rhythm of his speech brings casual enlightenment about Seattle history. Oki mentions he does judo at Seattle Dojo in the Central District, which turns out to be the first-ever judo dojo in the United States. He says he opened Umai-Do a few blocks away, at Jackson Street and 20th Avenue, because the space it occupies used to be an iconic Asian-American diner called the 300 Restaurant. The 300 sign remains outside as homage, confusing occasional patrons who come looking for the lunch special.
Oki has dedicated the last six years of his life to a squishy rice-and-bean confection called manju, an old-school hand-held dessert, often consumed with tea, which originated thousands of years ago in China. It’s popular in Korea and Vietnam, but Oki practices its very prim-looking Japanese iteration. He learned manju-making a few years back as an apprentice at Fugetsu-Do in Los Angeles. Apprenticeship is rare in order to keep secrets secret, he says, but because he lives in Seattle, he was deemed an insufficient threat to business.
In Seattle, manju dates back to the 1970s and a Japantown bakery called Sagamiya. Oki would visit there with his parents and covet imogashi, dome-shaped cookies he describes as a Japanese snickerdoodle. Now Oki sells imogashi at Umai-Do. They’re cakey and cinnamon-y with pureed lima bean inside, borderline unsweet and dynamically textured; the flake of the cake versus the glide inside. They’re homey, even if you’ve never had anything like it.
Unsweetness is partially a cause of Oki’s. “The Japanese population is becoming more diabetic,” he says, diabetic himself since 1985. “Their overall eating habits have gone downhill. I’m around sweets all the time but I try not to eat them all day. Manju are healthy in general, though. They’re 90 percent protein.”
By and large, manju is prepared with two components: mochi, a typical Asian treatment that transforms rice into a smooth blob (once done with pounding, now a blend of glutinous rice flour and water), and anko, a thick paste made of colorful, mostly flavorless azuki beans and sugar, boiled and blended. The mochi is steamed, roughly kneaded with a wooden spoon in a wok and lightly floured. Then it’s stretched into a skin that feels not unlike fine nubuck leather. Finally it’s wrapped around a spoonful of anko, sealed by hand, and served at room temperature.
You might already know mochi as frozen, dough-wrapped ice cream balls served as dessert at Japanese restaurants or bought from the supermarket freezer section. There are many pre-made varieties available at Uwajimaya and elsewhere, but Oki’s are far better.
Oki’s shop has a slogan: “The Art of Manju.” Coined by a boy’s basketball team he used to coach, it carries a dual meaning—Oki’s first name, of course, and a reference to his dedication to the craft of manju.
“I try to make every one perfect,” he says.
Oki forms each manju piece into a tiny, delicate, burrito-esque wrap. The flavor is sweet, the texture thick. Consuming each green yomogi or white habutai in two soft bites seems to slow down time. The bean paste dissolves in your mouth, leaving tiny bits of bean skin to mix with chewy mochi. The whole package oozes but is oddly dry. Green tea, light and toasty, is the ideal complement.
Like a bottle of wine or bouquet of flowers, manju make a casual but thoughtful gift for pretty much any occasion. They’re usually found in people’s homes and at Japanese gatherings like Buddhist church services, weddings and funerals. When the Japanese American Citizens League descended on the Hyatt in Bellevue in July, Oki delivered them a thousand manju. For the annual Cherry Blossom Festival at Seattle Center in April, he makes between 1,300 and 1,700, including sakuramochi, pink manju with a pickled cherry blossom leaf wrapped around it.
It’s all mostly traditional stuff but Oki does experiment. Though not like in Hawaii, which he says is Mecca for manju innovation.
“I did my own creation for Halloween: orange mochi with a pumpkin azuki bean filling. That’s never been done before,” he says. He’s dabbled with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and offered a dark chocolate manju for Valentine’s Day that went over really well.
“I’m going to keep it as a special,” he says, “so people can crave it a little more.”
Photos by Nate Watters.