To the untrained eye, this would look like fancy mochi to most Malaysians. But this exquisite-looking Japanese dessert is still quite uncommon in the country.
Known as nerikiri wagashi, this Japanese dessert originates from Kyoto. Nerikiri is made from a blend of white bean paste with sugar (shiroan) and glutinous rice paste (gyuhi). Wagashi on the other hand is a general term for Japanese confectionery like mochi, dorayaki, taiyaki, etc.
This craft is no easy feat for anyone, which you probably can already tell by the pictures. But native Ipohian Vny (pronounced “Winnie”) Ho finds serenity in making it and sharing her craft with others.
What’s more surprising is that she had yet to personally try this dessert from Japan prior to establishing Amai Kitchen in August 2019. She gained the nerikiri crafting skills from a nerikiri dessert class in Ipoh that she attended once.
Usually mistaken for something else
“Traditional nerikiri are made very sweet, usually served during Japanese tea ceremonies to complement the bitterness in matcha. But we’ve adjusted the recipe and reduced the sweetness level to mildly sweet,” Vny shared with Vulcan Post.
Because it’s made from fine bean paste, Vny’s been told by her customers that it slowly melts in their mouths. Until today, she’s also yet to have desserts with such similar textures.
Nerikiri is usually filled with adzuki (red bean paste) and Amai Kitchen serves two versions of that: one with a smoother texture, and another that’s coarser. But Vny also added other flavours like matcha, asam, chocolate, dates, and mango.
Because most Malaysians are unfamiliar with this dessert, they’ve mistaken Vny’s products for mooncakes and even soap or clay art. Some even insisted the desserts were made with a mold, but Vny always encouraged them to come witness her magic in action when possible.
Marrying inspiration and creativity
On Vny’s page, you’ll find that there is plenty of floral nerikiri artwork. “When I first started, I’d observe photos of some Japanese nerikiri master’s work. Then, I’d spend days figuring out how a particular design was made, before attempting the design myself,” Vny said.
Practice was key to honing her craft, of course, as over time she was able to turn paintings and pictures of flowers into designs for her own pieces. These floral pieces include motifs of bamboo, wisteria, poinsettia, plum blossoms, hydrangeas, mimosas, etc.
She’s also inspired by festive seasons like Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn festival, Christmas, and Women’s Day.
The R&D for flavours usually begins with random ideas that come to Vny’s mind, which she’ll later just create and let others taste for feedback. Over the years, she had to let go of some flavours she liked because they just weren’t suitable for nerikiri.
Her nerikiri retails for about RM18 to RM25 per piece, but Vny usually sells them in a box of at least four and they retail at RM80 to RM100 for regular ones and RM250 for festive ones.
Starting a luxurious treats biz in Ipoh
“It hasn’t been easy because of the spending power in Ipoh, as nerikiri isn’t considered a comfort food or necessity per se but rather a luxury,” Vny shared her woes.
Fortunately, she has some regulars and is busy during all kinds of festive and celebratory seasons, birthdays included.
Making nerikiri aside, Vny had also been organising classes since last year. Introductory classes are priced at RM250 per head, and students can learn 2 designs and make 4 pieces for 3 hours.
Just this March, she was working with studios in PJ, which received a good response. But just as she wanted to commit to these classes in April and May, her plans were cancelled because of the recent change in interstate traveling SOPs.
However, Vny feels that Ipoh alone as a location isn’t entirely challenging to work in because it also comes down to her skills in promoting more brand awareness for Amai Kitchen. She acknowledged that the market in Klang Valley would provide more potential, but shared that there’s not much she can do about it for now.
To add, the pandemic was already straining her class schedules. “Last September due to safety reasons, I decided to limit my classes to private sessions only. But it was on an on-and-off basis adhering to the changing SOPs.”
“During the last quarter of 2020 till CNY, income was generated from the sales of nerikiri. However, that eventually slowed down,” shared Vny.
Vny disclosed to Vulcan Post that she was able to earn an average of RM5K every month in revenue back in 2020, but with no upcoming festive seasons and classes coming to a halt, her business dropped by 30%.
Too delicate for casual deliveries
Branching out her sales to Klang Valley is quite tough with this dessert, as Vny already finds it hard to deliver to other parts of Perak.
Because of how delicate nerikiri is, Vny doesn’t trust third-party delivery services to handle her tediously handcrafted desserts. Hence, she and her husband mainly deliver them within Ipoh, and when there are fewer restrictions, they’ll deliver to Klang Valley.
Vny shared that she has no plans to set up new branches or more income streams for the time being. Though this is her full-time, she also chooses to see it as more of a passion project at the time being as she’s more focused on sharing her skills and craft.
I know I may not be ticking the right boxes for a business. I don’t know if things may change my mind in the future, but I’m pretty sure that for now, Amai Kitchen to me is more of a passion than a business.Vny Ho, founder of Amai Kitchen
Featured Image Credit: Vny Ho, founder of Amai Kitchen