The birth of Kompeito Edible ‘Stars’ Comes with Patience; Keeping Traditions Alive with Inventive New Flavors

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yasuhiro Shimizu pours syrup over kompeito in a rotating skillet, while listening carefully for the slightest change in sound at the Ryokujuan-Shimizu factory in Sakyo Ward, Kyoto.

KYOTO — Crackle, crackle, pop. The sounds echoed while grains of sugar candy flew down from the top of a tilted rotating skillet 2 meters in diameter and accumulated at its rim.

At the factory for the Ryokujuan-Shimizu kompeito sugar candy store in Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, craftspeople spend all day listening for the slightest change in sound from the candy, while carefully stirring it with a long-handled trowel. It takes 20 days for the grains to grow to about 1 centimeter in diameter.

Kompeito sugar candy was introduced to Japan by Portugal during the Sengoku (warring states) period. How is the twinkling star shape created?

“We carefully tend to their growth,” said Yasuhiro Shimizu, 59, the fifth owner of the store that opened in 1847. “We’ve been told to ‘listen to the kompeito if you’ve lost your way.’”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kompeito sugar candy in the process of being made at Ryokujuan-Shimizu.

The core of the candy is made from glutinous rice and other ingredients that have been crushed into powder — called irako — about 0.5 millimeters in diameter. The cores roll in a skillet heated to over 200 C as syrup is applied to them. When the syrup touches the iron skillet, it creates a slight difference in dryness, and kompeito’s signature protrusions gradually form over about three days.

As the candy rolls around the skillet, the sounds reveal its level of crystalization. A dull sound would mean the candy has not dried yet, while an overly high pitch would mean that the candy’s texture is not good. Yasuhiro keeps close to the skillet even during his lunch break to pay careful attention to the candy’s sound.

Yasuhiro’s father, Seiichi, 83, used to call kompeito “such a dull confectionery.” He had said that making kompeito is a frustrating job that doesn’t go as smoothly as craftspeople want.

“Patiently waiting for the right time is the artisan’s real craft,” Yasuhiro’s wife and the shop’s proprietress Tamayo, 48, said. “Everything is packed into in a single piece of kompeito.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yasuhiro, right, and his wife Tamayo smile in front of the shop’s curtain.

Harder than baseball training

Yasuhiro took over the family business when he turned 30.

He is a massive baseball fan who played as an infielder for PL Gakuen during his high school years, a powerhouse school for the sport in Osaka Prefecture. His team won back-to-back championships in the National Invitational High School Baseball Tournament, and Yasuhiro continued playing baseball at university and on a corporate team.

Yasuhiro could tell that the harshness of the work was really wearing his father down. As a high school student, Yasuhiro started helping Seiichi make kompeito. He said, “Just staring at the skillet for hours was such a monotonous job, harder than the strenuous training at PL.”

Yasuhiro made up his mind to succeed the business due to the declining health of his grandfather Isamu, the third owner who died in 1996 at the age of 83, as it left his father alone in the factory more often than not.

“I couldn’t let the taste of my family’s tradition die out,” Yasuhiro said.

The fifth owner is challenging himself to create new flavors that have never been made before.

Yuzu citrus was the first ingredient he tried to make 25 years ago. He used peels as the candy’s core, only to find that the peel and syrup separated as they heated. “The liquid was all coming out,” he said.

It took him eight years to find the right timing to make kompeito with yuzu. Since then, he has created many other flavors, including sweet potato and azuki bean.

The crafting technique has also been passed on to Yasuhiro’s eldest son, Yuse, 17. Tamayo said she had Yuse listen to the sound of kompeito at the factory from the time he was in the womb.

The watermelon flavor, Yuse’s brainchild, is the shop’s go-to for summer.

Yasuhiro said: “My mission is to pass the baton to the next generation while making new variations. Even if it takes a lot of time and effort, we won’t change how we make it.”