• The World Digested

The Infinity of Three


One, two, three; one, two three, one, two three… The number, 3, has fascinated the humankind since…well, since we could count. Three is stable, three is magical, three is divine, and three is Gyokuseiya.

These days, you cannot even eat in peace without letting the waiter blur out a multi-page explanation; that is, after you have already listened to multiple today’s specials (I thought special connoted “rare”); that is, after you have already tried to decode the multi-lingual menu: five-spiced micro tomato; slow-poached halibut in chardonnay with yuzu-infused foam; medallion of monkfish wrapped in nori seaweed; curried lobster topped with mango chutney… I would prefer not to wait for waiters to render some sketchily memorized and badly narrated recitals and let my food get cold. “I prefer not to. [1]”

However, the waiter should not take the entire blame (perhaps just a little): It is, without doubt, the chef’s fault. It seems the more famous a chef is, the more complex the menu has to be. Their menus are injected with many ill-used foreign words and tautologies - i.e. Wagyu beef translates to Japanese beef2. Ever heard of “Table Mesa” in Arizona?

At Gyokuseiya, there is no such problem. Everything is beautifully simple; and everything works around the number of 3. For the menu, you have only three choices: roasted soy bean flour (kinako), granular red bean paste (tsubu-an), and strained red bean paste (koshi-an). Only three ingredients are used - soy bean, red bean and rice. Inside this tiny establishment, the waiting bench only accommodates three.

Having praised the simplicity of three, I must confess that this innocent three is also the source of infinite headaches and heartaches. Since you can only order in six, eight, ten and fifteen, and you can only choose two kinds for any amount less than fifteen. Hence, you have to solve the equation and balance your greed within these constraints: How many of soy bean, strained or granular red bean? [2]

However, no need to panic. There is ample time to work it out. The resigned aficionados and the fearless curious start lining up before the opening at 14:00. Usually, there is a 30-40 minute wait (shorter on the weekdays, of course) for you to chat and seek the advice of the regulars, to be gawked and dissuaded by the onlookers. All these times, the sun mercilessly beats down on your head, neck and shoulders and, once you start moving forward, your entire backside. Yet, have courage and don’t give up! You shall be rewarded.

And, what exactly is it, then, that you get at Gyokuseiya? Since you have read this far, I might just tell you: it is ohagi. Ohagi is a rice ball, shaped like a bale of rice (when rice was still stored in its own straw bag), or easier to picture today, a cross between a football and a boston bag. This ball of rice is evenly covered in either granular or strained anko (red bean paste) or Gyokuseiya’s special kinako (roasted soy bean flour). Now, what is granular? Called tsubu-an (an is short for anko), cooked red beans are left as is, with the skin on; therefore, it has a stronger earthy taste. On the other hand, strained red bean paste, koshi-an, is made by washing the cooked and mashed beans in water where the starchy and sandy portion of the red beans sinks to the bottom (being heavier than water, just checking), and not just once but several times (depending on how refined the master wants the flavor to be). The result is a silky and smooth paste that you just want to dance cheek-to-cheek.

I saved kinako to the last because it is indeed special. Think roasting soy beans (coffee beans will do) and grind them to flour. Imagine grinding it very very very fine and using the finest mesh to shift out the irregularities. Can you imagine that this bean flour dissolves in your mouth? No? Because it is not water-soluble? Well, think again. Because at Gyokuseiya, the master has mastered the impossible. His kinako is a beautiful ochre powder that is almost inhalable.

When your turn finally comes and you are called - you must wait to be called - into the sanctuary, the fragrance of kinako envelopes you. You can smell the layers and layers of this fine yellow powder, gathering kinako dust in every nook and cranny, and you smell history of kinako - the aged, the yesterday, and the fresh. Once I place my order after an agonizing decision of not being able to order all three kinds in equal portions, but definitely not leaving any one kind behind,[3] I sit on the bench in tranquility and expectation and watch the golden kinako dust dance in the air. And, I inhale. I inhale deeply so that every particle will travel in my bloodstream. I watch the thin film of kinako dust on the glass counter, and wish I could suck in all that with a straw.[4]

While waiting for my ohagi to be made, a die-hard regular like me cannot and should not exactly sit idle. I have the duty of initiating the greenhorns: “Now, you must move one seat to the left so that another person can sit,” while outside, my partner in food directs the traffic, “no, no, the line starts over there,” “yes, you must line up,” and “yes, that young man with curly hair and green flower shirt beyond that building, no, not the next one but the next one after? That is the end of the line.”

When you finally receive the goods, you are made to swear that you will eat the kinako ones on the same day and the anko ones by next morning. “No problem. I will eat them as soon as I walk out,” I reply. This fine kinako is fragile; you cannot even wait until evening (not that I can wait that long) or it will absorb the moisture of the rice.

Then I walk gingerly to my safe haven - bench and trash can provided - nearby[5] and gently open the box so that I will not lose even one particle of the kinako. I split the chopsticks in anticipation and take a moment to stare at the beauties: How does he put eight soft round rice balls covered in sticky tsubu-an and powdery kinako so snugly - no empty space at all - into a square box? Another mystery that must be solved on another day because I must get busy now. I wiggle one out and bite. Ahhhhhhh, sheer heaven. Instantly, the roasted soy bean powder melts and leaves me with the savory aroma.

I finish one kinako and move in on the red beans. Sometimes, I prefer the granular; sometimes I swear by the refined. Either way, the intense red bean flavor is perfectly balanced by the sweet rice.

And, the texture of the rice! What a texture. Normally, ohagi is a homey snack pre-made and chewy, similar to mochi (sticky rice cakes). However, at Gyokuseiya, the master only starts making once the order is placed. You do not see why I am laboring this point? Well, imagine sitting at the counter and having the sushi made in front of you, as opposed to eating the take-outs. It is that different.[6] This ohagi is like nigiri. It is not hard and sticky, but airy and chewy and velvety all at the same time.

Nevertheless, this bliss ends all too soon, and I start contemplating whether I should line up again for the second round.

Gyokuseiya

Address: 1-4-4 Sennichimae, Chuo-ku, Osaka 542-0074 Japan

Phone: +81-6-6213-2374

Hours: 02:00pm until sold out; closed on Thursdays and Sundays

[1] Herman Melville. Who else, really?

[2] The soy bean flour ones must be wrapped in a plastic sheet so that the flour will not stick to the other kind; and Gyokuseiya only does the longitudinal lines for the esthetic and the efficiency, not the horizontal. Therefore, the smallest amount that allows you to try all three is 12 (two six-boxes).

[3] Guess how many I get then? I am told that usually one adult person eats two.

[4] I believe I can get high on this magical golden powder. Really. I mean, really.

[5] Cannot divulge. You will have to find your own.

[6] If you still do not see, well, there is nothing I can do.

#Osaka #Wagashi