So enamored of her second-Sunday Tohryanse Open House event, I had to ask Chef Chika Tokara if she would tell us more about how she got interested in making the delicately flavored Japanese sweets known as wagashi, and what it’s like to bring these sweets to Seattle. Chef Tokara kindly obliged my eagerness with the following interview. Don’t miss her sweets at cafes such as Tougo Coffee, or at the Urasenke Foundation Seattle Branch‘s tea ceremony demonstrations around town.
When did you become interested in making wagashi?
I had always been interested in making sweets. Around 1992 I decided I wanted to lose weight and I knew that Japanese sweets were healthier than in the west. Japanese sweets have no preservatives and are made from plants.
How did you train to make wagashi?
I studied for 7 years at a cooking school in Sendai [a city in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan] with teachers who were all good, but they were not masters. I moved to Kyoto where I met my master, who has been working as a wagashi maker more than 45 years. He taught me all about wagashi in a professional way. He sent me to an exclusive professional school for wagashi makers. I worked during the daytime and went to the school at night.
Wagashi ingredients and designs are influenced by the seasons in Japan. Now that you live in Seattle, how are the seasons and the wagashi different or similar to what is made in Japan?
In Japan, the seasons are more distinct, whereas here it is more mild. Traditional wagashi are made according to the Japanese flower calendar, but in Seattle everything blooms at once! So I still use the Japanese flower calendar with some differences like the pumpkin [an American plant] or chestnut [offered in September for Seattle rather than November for Kyoto] flavors.
What do you like best about making wagashi and having your business in Seattle?
I like that the design and shape of wagashi are very basic and easy to change just a little bit, depending on the seasons. It means that I do not get bored. Here in Seattle, people like to try new things, and I can see people enjoying the sweets and their impressions of encountering a new culture.
What are your favorite things to do in Seattle or what would your perfect Seattle day look like?
I would take an early morning walk around Green Lake, then get a coffee or a latte at Caffe Vita and a muffin at Fresh Flours. Also Safeway makes delicious bagels, but you have to get them first thing in the morning, at 6am, when they are warm and fresh! Then I would want to spend time with friends, and watch a movie on a rainy day. Update! Some more of Chef Tokara’s favorite places in Seattle: Espresso Vivace Alley 24, The Urban Bakery, Peaks Frozen Custard and Bottega Italiana for gelato.