Friday, February 25, 2022

El Salvador/Tokyo Connection

El Salvador Day 1: Strong Start with Grandma Rice Pupusas
El Salvador Day 2: Típicos
El Salvador Day 3: Quesadilla and the Death of Enlightenment
El Salvador Day 4: (Part1) Izalco Bound
El Salvador Day 4: (Part 2) Pre-Colombian Delights
El Salvador Bits & Pieces

I mentioned, last time, a kooky bakery run by a Japan-obsessed Salvadoran woman, who, never having been over there, opened a Japanese shop which, via sheer force of will and power of imagination, is seriously the most Japanese Thing that's ever existed.
If I knew, at the time, the story I would tell, I'd have photographed way more thoroughly and carefully.

I have dishonored myself.
KĀKO Cakes ("Japanese Cotton Cheesecake") is a miracle of ganas. That's an untranslatable Spanish word meaning something like "urge", or maybe "propulsive desire", but it refers to the pure inertia itself rather than any aspirational pose someone would write a song about. Your ganas is to get from point A to point B, but without squandering attention on self-consciousness. It's not about you. This is a very Japanese concept. In fact, it's the most Japanese term in the Spanish language.

And it's strikingly appropriate given the mission: bringing Japanese cheesecake - a style with little resemblance to Jewish or Italian cheesecake, and which seems like an odd culinary artifact even in Manhattan or San Francisco - to El Salvador.
I must once again invoke "Fitzcarraldo", Werner Herzog's depiction of a nineteenth century Irish robber baron's megalomaniacal obsession with bringing grand opera to the Peruvian Indians, which required, among other travails, hoisting a 320-ton steamship over a mountain.
I can't imagine know how the proprietor found the shop's location, in a woody, bucolic little shopping center which, if you squint a little, could be in the outskirts of Tokyo. And, strolling into that cluster of little shops, KĀKO Cakes does not make itself apparent. It's up a level from the rest, and tucked into a corner - exactly where a whimsical Japanese woman full of ganas might open her little labor of love.
The minuscule shop doesn't just look Japanese, which is easy. It actually feels like Japan, to an impossible degree. It was like I'd stepped into Harajuku.
So here is the cheesecake on display. It is inauthentic but very delicious. But this sort of inauthenticity is - if you'll tolerate the paradox - authentically Japanese.

It goes without saying that the proprietor has carefully studied every single Internet recipe for Japanese cheesecake, but it's also apparent that she's never tried any in person. So she may not realize how phenomenally dry it should be. Japanese cheesecake is like spongecake - really, more like foam rubber - which tastes like cheesecake but could be dragged, in cross-section, across a sheet of paper without leaving a mark. Japanese cheesecake's weird, man.

If I need to explain it to you food nerds, imagine how audacious it is to try to sell this to Salvadorans, who are only beginning to develop interest in other cuisines.

Though unique, this nonetheless expresses the essence of Japanese cheesecake. It's still considerably drier than conventional cheesecake - which has grown popular in El Salvador (remember the dandy slice with housemade fruit marmalade at Roots Cafe that I reported on last time). But it's not quite as dry as authentic Japanese cheesecake.

One doesn't get the sense that she's making it more accessible. This isn't a pander, or a misfire. It's bona fide improvement. It's better this way. And the reason I'm giving benefit of the doubt is that this recipe has clearly been worked and perfected to beyond-the-beyond, with all micro-balances smack-on to the nth degree. The intense loving workmanship that's gone into this cheesecake recalls the level of care by which a Japanese sword maker is said to invest his output with a soul.

The nearly deranged ganas invested in this shop and this cheesecake make it impossible to imagine any pandering. She's sought and found her perfection. Even if you haven't been to Japan, you've surely seen "Tampopo".

One would expect to often see such diligence in the food world. This, after all, is the job. But only a few dozen times have I experienced a really celestial degree of polish. When the curve of declining results is climbed to its loftiest reaches, one senses a consciousness offering poetic statements via sweetness, saltiness, moisture, texture, etc.

In my first book, I wrote about the mackerel sushi at a secret Japanese whiskey bar/eating club in Midtown Manhattan:
[It's] about RICE, not fish. The snowy grains are consummately plump and texturally perfect; if the chef had cooked it 15 seconds more or less The Perfect Point would have been utterly lost. They yield to teeth with exquisitely even resistence; it seems as if each one had been meticulously placed in position to ensure the ideal chewy smoothness of bite. The fish is a mere scent, a perfume that floats over the mouthful, then dissipates in a dance of flavors that eventually defers to ginger and wasabe.
That's what you can achieve with really, really - no, really - sensitive and conscientious consideration. And the Japanese are the revered masters of that sort of thing. So it all makes sense. Except that the proprietor of KĀKO Cakes isn't Japanese. And has never been to Japan.

This isn’t some Salvadoran chick's fake Japanese bakery and fake Japanese cheesecake. It’s what a young Japanese woman would come up with imagining the sort of cheesecake a girl in El Salvador, pining for Japan, might bake in a Miyazaki film. And there is nothing more Japanese than working in a meticulous and heartfelt manner, and deliberately hiding that effort to set a beauty trap of unexpected delight.

Such an approach is anomalous, and anomalies spew surprises. For example, there's the serendipitous Japanese garden visible through the side door.

My father, aunt, and uncle were experts on Japanese Zen gardens (my long-gone aunt, Claire Koffler, is still remembered for her exquisite bonsai work), and I've visited a number of them in person and viewed thousands of photos. Here are a couple:
So I was gobsmacked to spot this view from the side of the shop, so unlikely that sorcery must be involved:
If I'd fully made the Japanese garden connection before shooting this, I'd have found a more thoughtful angle. I do not deserve KĀKO Cakes.
I did not try the mochi or the handful of other non-cheesecake offerings. I did have a matcha, which was friendly/restorative but wrong in ways I couldn't quite debug, though, again, distinctively Japanese in its inauthenticity. Only a Japanese would invest such unflamboyant ganas and care. That's the Japanese connection, not any certain taste profile.
Thing is, it would be easy to miss nearly all of this. Hell, I don't know how people find even the cafe itself, positioned to resist discovery even by customers seeking it out (which is also incredibly Japanese). So this long story might be supplanted by a zippy one liner in Time Out: "Salvadoran lady opens Japanese-style bakery with good cheesecake." But those who revel in fine points and subtleties - the small end of the telescope widely neglected in the pursuit of grand prizes and big pictures - know that the really good stuff requires and rewards sensitive attention.

As a devotee of nano aesthetics, that's how I frame the world. And KĀKO Cakes is one for the ages.
Domo arigato to artist Erin Nicholls for the tip!

Go forward to "El Salvador: Hotel Panic"

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