May 19 2010 12:00 AM

Japanese confectioner creates art you can eat

The master rolls a ball of orange dough in the palms of his hands, nimbly working it like a potter, before incorporating a bit of yellow-colored dough. He wraps a cheesecloth around the amalgamation, squeezing and spinning it, and when the dough reappears, it has been shaped into a perfect sphere.

He dips a white cloth into a small container of water surrounded by handmade wooden tools and dampens a block of wood where the little bi-colored ball is laid and pressed into a thick oval. He uses the side of a stake-like tool to begin forming the final shape. Then, with a chopstick sharpened to a fine point, he begins to detail the dough — removing tiny bits here, indenting and lining there — until an autumninspired maple leaf is born.

The master is Shoji Nishizawa, a confectionary craftsman from Shiga prefecture (Michigan’s sister state) in south central Japan. His medium is Wagashi, a centuries-old Japanese culinary tradition with influences from China to Portugal. The dough he transforms into edible pieces of art is mostly made of mochi (gelatinous rice cakes) and azuki (sweetened red bean paste) and fruit is often added as well.

Nishizawa demonstrated his craft in front of a Kellogg Center classroom brimming with spectators on a recent Thursday afternoon. Sponsors included the Michigan-Shiga Sister State Program and Michigan State University’s school of hospitality business.

Nishizawa is the president and master confectionary maker for Tomoe Kaho, a sweets shop near Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan (hence the sister-state relationship with Michigan) in Takashima City.

The Wagashi tradition is firmly rooted in an aesthetic that deeply reveres the natural world. Practitioners refer to the art as recreating a tiny universe, and an attempt is made to stimulate each of the five senses. Typically, confectionaries draw their inspirations only from the current month or season.

“Normally, I make sweets only by the season,” Nishizawa said through a translator. “But today is a special day and I will show sweets from different seasons.”

In March, glutinous rice cakes are sculpted into cherry blossoms, and hundreds of crunchy little pedals — dark pink near the base and lighter near the tip, just like the real thing — dust the bottom of a platter as if windblown from a tree, waiting to be eaten.

In July and August, when the summer hits full force, kingyoka-style sweets are popular; they correlate to cool, refreshing moments away from the sun, with some detailed with transparent gelatin spots that look just like raindrops.

From September through November, the blazing colors of maple leaves are replicated, as are chestnuts and other foods of the autumn harvest. And in winter, sweets are specially made for the December solstice and later for the New Year.

The tradition of confection making is often handed down from generation to generation. Such was the case for Nishizawa, whose grandfather and father both practiced Wagashi.

“It was fate,” Nishizawa said. “I was born in a confectionary store.”

Growing up near the city of Kyoto, a confectionary hotbed, Nishizawa decided at an early age that he wanted to hone his culinary skills. In 2008, Nishizawa won the National Confectionary Expo award and the following year he was dubbed “the Shiga craftsman 2009” by the prefecture governor.

His most stunning work includes a large bird in flight, detailed down to the texture of hundreds of feathers, and a flower garden highlighted by a pine tree so steeped in verisimilitude, you’d swear only a hoofed animal would eat it. That particular sculpture, which was five feet tall by four-and-a-half feet wide with over 5,000 hand-crafted pine needles, won the top award at the 2008 Confectionary Expo.

His creations are all delicious, right down to the flowers’ stamens, but instead of abstaining because it looks too real, one hesitates to eat these pieces because they are masterpieces of sculpture.

When the little confections are eaten, don’t expect the sugar shock typically encountered in Western candies. Most are mildly sweet with natural, almost rustic, flavors and the textures are both soft and thick, like peanut butter, only far less sticky. In the store, larger, more ornate confections cost up to $20, while smaller sweets typically cost $2 to $3.

Wagashi rarely uses eggs, butter, oil or cream, so the confections contain almost no fat or cholesterol. After a heavy meal, with some tea, these little sweets are a fine dessert.

Nishizawa draws inspiration from the seasons, like any other Wagashi artist, but he has a few other motivators as well. He says he works because he wants his son to have pride in his father, and his wife expects a lot from him, too.

“At first, I just wanted to make enjoyable sweet cakes,” he said. “Now, I enjoy being on a team and entering competitions and practicing the craft of a master.”