Sweet and Salty and, Sweaty
Time has a flavor, and it can be tasted—in a bowl of sweet azuki soup called zenzai. Zenzai—is a chameleon word: it is a liquidy azuki bean soup in the Western Japan, but it loses half of its water in the Eastern side so that it looks more like a side dish than a soup. If you want to get the Western zenzai inTokyo, then you have to order a shiruko. Imagine the former zenzai is a Cuban black bean soup, the latter, well, Cuban black beans but served over rice. Do not frown and do not laugh: water is the unnamed don of Japanese dessert—it has to be since 80% of traditional desserts evolve around just about three ingredients—azuki beans, sticky rice and sugar. Simpler time called for simpler tastes.
If time has a flavor, then history has a texture, and it can be felt—in a coffee shop, tucked under a railroad bridge. New Hamaya, opened in 1951, is a relic in 2018. It is a relic because the rustic recipes are left over from the bygone days before the domination of richer creams and fancier cakes. It is a relic, but not a ruin, because the customers continue to polish the table with their elbow grease as they indulge in a moment of sweet oblivion. Men and women, who are not much younger than the coffee shop, begin dropping in around 3 o’clock for their oyatsu. Oyatsu means 8 o’clock under the old lunisolar system, and the eighth hour coincided more or less with 3 o’clock in the afternoon—the hour when the belly and the mind both need a bit of sustenance. Time has changed and has been changed, but human habits are hard to shake. Therefore, Japanese start rummaging cupboards or, better yet, head over to their local coffee shop, not a cafe, and New Hamaya is as local as it gets—since not many new comers are likely to drop by, not because it is hidden and hard to reach—right in front of the train station—but because it is where it is. New Hamaya is in a ghetto.
Time—time tastes sweet, sweet and salty; history—history feels hot and sticky. At the front of the shop, an old man slowly slurps on a hot azuki soup, while another hinged and unhinged his dentured mandibular on charred sticky mochi. Two men come in and blurt out orders for cream soda float and mixed juice and wipe their hands on their coveralls with a sigh.
True to its epithet of “sweet tooth”, New Hamaya specializes in sweets and desserts. The dessert menu ranges from the cheapest kintsuba—azuki bean paste dipped in batter and grilled—at 100 JPY to the most expensive soup with mochiat 480 JPY, but mostly stay within the belt of 300 JPY, about the price you would pay for a tall latte in the United States. And, if the customer orders coffee with food, then a 100 JPY is taken off. Even then, not many choose to take advantage of the offer because, for many customers, one dessert is more than luxury.
For every single yen counts here in Nishinari, Osaka. It is a town without convenience stores because nothing sold in 7-Eleven or FamilyMart is conveniently priced for the inhabitants. However, it has vending machines selling bottled drinks, of brands micro-local, as low as 30 JPY, which across the street would have been sold at 110 JPY (albeit of nationally-recognized brands). For Japan, self-claimed to be equal and uniform, Nishinari is an eyesore. It is poor and it is dirty, and it is infamous for being "the only town in Japan to have riots.” It is a village within the city of Osaka where the nameless, the homeless and the jobless drift in and out of alcoholic stupor and psychotic nightmares, while the fortunate day laborers wash their only change of clothes with their own hands after a long day of manual labor. Crowded but not connected, it is easy to lose oneself in the alleys and doorways, which hides many sins and many more pains, or even a stinking dead body with 180K in cash.
Life in Nishinari had always been bloody: one of the first slaughterhouse in Japan opened here, as the river used to run nearby. Naturally, a cow is not made solely with T-bone and rump, nor a pork with patty and sausages. Hence, with the meat, there is the hide, which provided jobs for the “unclean” to cleanse and render them into leather; then there was also the offal, which fed the “nonpeople,” who were human beings without any human rights. While the leather industry in Nishinari has dwindled in the recent decades, only a few shoemakers left to scrape a living, the offal, known as hormon, is doing just fine—drawing the curious and the daredevils from the genteeler side of Osaka (if such a thing exits).
Nishinari had been a cesspit of Japanese human hierarchy. However, as the baby boomers, so have the locals. The last riot in 2008 made headlines only because a “riot” in Japan was a rare occurrence, but in truth, some middle-aged men throwing a few beer bottles is really rather harmless, isn’t it? In the end, the government has won and Nishinari has been cleaned, somewhat. Nevertheless, it continues to suffer a stigma and the town is looked down upon, especially from the tallest building in Japan next door—Abeno Harukas.
It must have been started by the Gods, this myth of living on the high, so that now the rich and mighty all want to crowd and clatter on top of Mount Olympus—if not, the next tallest condo. Higher than thou, holier than thou. If the Tower of Babel falls today, we will sue them. If there are people on the high, then there are people on the low. From heaven, the lesser beings fall—fall from grace and from power and then fall ill and fall apart. Among the many traps we fall into, we fall in love. We fall so far that we fall head over heels.
Even when that someone is “beneath” us. So, it happened with the lovely maiden from Kobe on the hill—who played the piano and danced the ballet—and with the hunchbacked boy from Nishinari. What kind of hardships and obstacles they had to overcome would deserve more imagination than Disney can provide, and the life in the happily-ever-after will shame any reality shows. All in all, even after 40 years, they are still in love, and they are loved by their customers.
“Cold zenzai, two,” Mrs. Hamaguchi executed a graceful half turn to give Mr. Hamaguchi the order. He nodded without looking up from behind the counter, which hid him up to the chin. Soon the cold red bean soup arrived, chilled and congealing. Congealing and slightly gelatinous, from the natural or fortified starch, the soup was more like a stew, heavy on the spoon. The chill hit the palate first, but then as it warmed in an instant, thezenzai released its true force—sweet, certainly sweet, but more than sweet, it was salty. Salty, not as in sprinkle of accent, but as a sturdy member of the ingredients. Salt is often used in Japanese sweets: a pinch of salt elevates the sensory perception so that sugar can go a longer way than traveling solo. However, the sugar and salt defied chemistry and stayed separate in this bowl of soup—sweet and salty hits the palate like two slaps on the cheeks.
Write it off as another bad dessert? No, not yet. At New Hamaya—tasting does not end there. After the initial assault had been washed down by the free coarse tea, the senses regained their normal functions to take in the hums and the buzz—and the breathed in the air of time and history. A sigh escaped, and as if mesmerized, the hand slid across the linoleum and took another spoonful of the starchy, salty sweetness. The soup had warmed and acclimatized to the temperature of the human body, which release the minerals of the salt and the earthiness of the azuki beans. Moist and tepid, the flavor of the zenzai felt vaguely familiar—it tasted of briny, sweaty human cheek, like licking off chocolate sauce from someone else’s face. After all, the human body is salty: 0.3% to 0.4% of the body weight is made of salt.
Sweaty—what a nasty word it is! Sweaty is sticky, and sticky is stinky. But that is the taste of human body, and that is the taste of Nishinari. For these men engaged in day labor, to work means to sweat—moving bricks or carting trash. They need to replenish the lost minerals and calories more so than the shoppers looking down on them from Harukas. In Nishinari, A day of hard labor pays around 4000 JPY to 7000 JPY, which is enough to live a week in a homeless comfort. A bento box—discarded from the real convenience stores—sells for about 100-200 JPY, which comes with extra and expired rice balls. Many men would rather spend the rest on liquor and beer; therefore, those who do choose to spend their sweaty wages for dessert are indeed treating themselves a sweet splurge. Deluxe here does not mean a Tournedos Rossini or even a double cheese burger. Instead, it means a double serving of the sweet and salty zenzai—the second most expensive item on the menu at 440 JPY—which comes with two chewy chunks of charred rice cake.
Men, yes, the customers are mostly male, and they are the last men of Nishinari. They have worked and sweated, lived and perspired; but now, they are expiring themselves. They were the last breed of tougher times, of rougher hands and thicker skins. Now the muscles are gone and the bodies withered, they drag their tired feet in worn shoes for a bowl of the sweet and salty soup, eager and expectant for the sticky rice cakes, as if partaking it would allow them to stick to life a little longer. Just a little bit longer.
Address: 2 Chome-11 Haginochaya, Nishinari-ku, Osaka-shi, Osaka 557-0004.
Closed on Sundays and Wednesdays.