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Friday, February 25, 2011

No. 57: Sakura Mochi at Benkyodo

Posted By on Fri, Feb 25, 2011 at 4:22 PM

Benkyodo's pale pink, cherry leaf-wrapped sakura, $1.25. - J. KAUFFMAN
  • J. Kauffman
  • Benkyodo's pale pink, cherry leaf-wrapped sakura, $1.25.

SFoodie's countdown of our 92 favorite things to eat and drink in San Francisco, 2011 edition.

Gratuitous sweet: Benkyodo's apple manju. - J. KAUFFMAN
  • J. Kauffman
  • Gratuitous sweet: Benkyodo's apple manju.
There aren't many hundred-year-old shops in San Francisco still owned by the descendants of their founder, and it's even less imaginable that the quality at such establishments should remain high. But Benkyodo's third-generation owners, Rick and Bobby Okamura, who inherited the shop their grandfather Suyeichi started in 1906, still make wagashi by hand, alternating traditional varieties with familiar American flavors like blueberry and peanut butter. The line at Benkyodo's counter moves quickly, San Franciscans of many descents filing past the packed glass case of sweets while the brothers lob comments across the narrow room at the retired guys who sit at the lunch counter nursing a cup of coffee and a ham sandwich. 

Gratuitous sweet: Benkyodo's apple manju. - J. KAUFFMAN
  • J. Kauffman
  • Gratuitous sweet: Benkyodo's apple manju.
​It is spring ― more specifically, the season of cherry blossoms and Girls' Day, which falls on Mar. 3 ― and so among the mochi (steamed-rice sweets) and manju (baked flour cakes) in Benkyodo's case are sakura mochi. These round, pale-pink cakes, made of unpounded and sweetened sticky rice, are wrapped in plastic to keep them moist. They morph and shift in the hand as you gingerly peel off the plastic, as if they still have the untamed will of a gust of steam. 

The color of the mochi seems to come from the red-bean paste glowing through the translucent grains of rice, but the brothers admit a touch of food coloring is involved. What makes the sakura mochi exquisite is the oiled, many-toothed cherry leaf folded around each cake. Even after you peel it away, too, its scent clings to the rice; as you bite into the mochi, the sweet aromas of cherries and spice, followed by the fecund scent of chlorophyll, flit by, disappearing just as you begin to chew. 

The fragile, fleeting aroma of the seasonal sweet, which Benkyodo will sell into the early summer, is tinged with an elegiac note ― spring, and girlhood, are so brief! But you know, too, that the sakura mochi comes from a century-old sweet shop. For the time being, at least, its return is a given, something to seek out the next time the cherry blossoms appear.

Benkyodo: 1747 Buchanan (at Sutter), 922-1244.

Dishes in our series so far:

92: Goat tacos from El Norteño
91: Faux shark's fin soup at Benu
90: Esperpento's alcachofas a la plancha
89: Poco Dolce's olive oil chocolate bar
88: Decantr's chicken-liver mousseline
87: Outerlands' levain bread
86: Fraîche's frozen yogurt
85: Gyro King's spinach pie
84: Tandoori fish from Lahore Karahi
83: Braised oxtail and daikon from Namu
82: Golden Gate Bakery's custard tarts
81: Commonwealth's cured foie gras with umeboshi purée
80: Star Stream's Liège-style waffle
79: Mexican hot chocolate from La Oaxaqueña
78: Meatball sandwich from Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe
77: Cheesecake from Zanze's
76: Chicken pepian at San Miguel
75: Macau iced coffee at Vega/Special Xtra
74: Comstock Saloon's Pisco Punch
73: Hai Ky Mi Gia's duck leg noodle soup
72: Sauerbraten at Walzwerk
71: Boudin noir at Cafe Bastille
70: Blackstrap molasses gingerbread at Lotta's Bakery
69: Plow's crispy potatoes
68: Prospect's Catcher in the Rye
67: Pork banh mi from Little Vietnam Cafe
66: Nakaochi at Ippuku
65: Sidekick's chocolate spritzer
64: Farmhouse Culture's horseradish-leek sauerkraut
63: Destination Baking Co.'s challah
62: Cotogna's roasted carrots
61: Hard Knox Cafe's chicken and waffles
60: The Rebel Within from Tell Tale Preserve Co.
59: The Slanted Door's Whiskey Cocktail
58: Carnitas burrito from Taqueria San Francisco

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Follow me at @JonKauffman.
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