Monday, July 12, 2010

Kyo Hayashiya - Green Tea Roll Cake

In Kyoto, where I lived for three years, nostalgia is not just an art form, it's part of the fabric of every day life. The geisha district, Gion, is a picturesque neighborhood of narrow canals, reed blinds, and streets so clean they look polished. Right across the gracefully arched bridges spanned by round wooden posts with old-fashioned lantern tops, the riverside restaurants of Kiyamachi-dori extend their dining areas with decks built out over the water in summer time. Sanjo Ohashi is one of the main bridges, and one of the oldest - it was the traditional end point of the road that led from Kyoto to Tokyo back in the Edo period, when all communication between the two main cities of Japan had to be carried by transalpine runners, on foot. Nowadays, Sanjo Ohashi has a Starbucks alongside the traditional sweets vendors. And Kyo Hayashiya, one of those vendors, has an outpost in Tokyo Midtown, one of the most modern office-retail-living complexes in Japan. Like so much else here, it's a classic case of old and new coinciding and getting along quite politely.
Kyoto is one of the few mostly-landlocked provinces in Japan, so its traditional culinary focus has always been on fruits of the earth, including tea. Kyo Hayashiya sells not just tea, but a variety of sweets flavored with it, including cookies and cheesecake. I was most intrigued by the roll cake, though. Roll cakes are another one of those very Japanese adaptations of something we have, but don't see much of, in the west. I guess they appeal to the Japanese taste for circular simplicity in design (exhibit A: the flag), relative plainness in a not-too-rich dessert (exhibit B: mochi), and endless adaptability to local ingredients in any trendy food (exhibit C: soft ice cream). I've seen sweet potato, chestnut, cherry, sakura, and mango roll cakes in addition to the ever popular plain vanilla and chocolate versions, and this particular green tea cake is but one of various possibilities, such as bean-filled and green-tea-flavored cream-filled. The sponge cake here is dense and not terribly sweet, and the cream includes a swirl of chocolate as well as a few unobtrusive adzuki beans. I'd never seen chocolate and adzuki combined before, and I'm not sure quite how I feel about it - I think the whole cake would have been fine without any chocolate. But it was also fine with it - I'm not complaining. The proportions of cream to cake were perfect. And being a Kyoto product, it gave me a very appropriate sense of nostalgia for those happy days of wandering along the riverside and looking out for any geisha crossing Sanjo Ohashi.

Tokyo Midtown Shop
Akasaka 9-7-3
Minato-ku, Tokyo

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