PARIS — Move over azuki and sweet sticky rice. While Japanese pastry chefs may have started using cocoa a few centuries after the West, this once foreign flavour has captivated Japan's confectionery world.
Japanese chocolate makers and pastry chefs were the star guests at the 17th Salon du Chocolat held in Paris this week. One of them, Susumu Koyama, 47, was even named "Best Foreign Chocolatier" -- winning out over top masters from celebrated chocolate-making nations like Belgium and Switzerland.
And while "Japanese chocolate" may still strike some as incongruous, cocoa is definitely the rising star in the Land of the Rising Sun, said Susumu.
Fermented tofu with chocolate cream filling was among the creations displayed at the 2011 Salon by Susumu, who was born into a family of Kyoto pastry chefs and said he relies on "instinct" and "nature" to ply his trade.
By the 17th century, chocolate made from the cocoa bean native to South America was a fashionable drink in many parts of Europe but only reached Japan "around 250 years" after it hit the West, Susumu said.
As a result, most of Japan's best-known pastries are largely chocolate free. But Susumu said Japanese chocolate makers are now "more and more numerous" and he's doing his part to boost the trend. The chocolatier -- who produces solely in Japan at his 200-employee factory, also his store, called "esKoyama" in Sanda, a countryside town between Kobe and Osaka -- set up a school in 2004 to turn out a new generation "trained in Japan" but, like himself, mindful of the French tradition.
He readily admits that childhood flavours infuse his concoctions, which he collectively calls "DNA Kyoto". One of his most acclaimed pieces, named Yanbai, is a bittersweet mix of dark chocolate, honey and a popular seven-spice powder called kuro-shichimi, a condiment often used by his mother.
Sadaharu Aoki, another pioneering Japanese chocolatier returning to the Salon this year, owns boutiques in Taiwan and Tokyo as well as four in Paris, where he offers a daring twist on the classic French pastry, l'Opera, a type of layered cake with chocolate and cream filling. Sadaharu flavours his with green tea and calls it "Bamboo".
On display at the Paris show was his latest invention: a chocolate macaroon set in a green tea waffle flavoured with black sesame, a seed sometimes used to season broiled eel, and a Japanese pepper spice called sanshou.
Even Japan's historic confectionery house Toraya, one of the oldest makers of traditional Japanese sweets that has supplied confectionery to the Imperial Royal family since the 16th century, has embraced the trend.
The company, which started selling its pastries in Paris 31 years ago, now offers the classic yokan, a thick jellied dessert using the native azuki, or red beans, with sweetened cocoa.
"The essence of creation is knowing how to combine new flavours," a Toraya official said.
A Japanese chef prepares a display at the Paris "Salon du Chocolat" (chocolate fair) this week (AFP, Francois Guillot)