F.D.R. was no fan of manju.
During World War II, Suyeichi Okamura and his family were among the thousands of Japanese American citizens sent to US internment camps, forcing Okamura to temporarily abandon his humble coffee shop. Opened in 1906, Benkyodo Co. was one of the first businesses in Japantown. For decades, Okamura handcrafted two kinds of traditional Japanese sweets: mochi (a cake of molded rice) and manju (a flour dumpling filled with sweet beans and sugar). But then war struck, citizens were seized, and the manju was no more.
In spite of it all, Okamura reopened Benkyodo Co. after the war. In 1959 the restaurant relocated to its present location, where a third generation of Okamuras, Ricky and Bobby, make fresh batches of mochi and manju daily—the only batches of manju, in fact, in all of San Francisco. More than the stewards of their grandfather’s business, Ricky and Bobby are the custodians of a small slice of Japanese culture, preserving a traditional taste of home for the city’s Japanese Americans and other local fans of the classic confections.
Now known as a neighborhood meeting spot, Benkyodo Co. serves typical cozy-corner fare such as coffee and ham sandwiches, but it’s never forgotten its roots: Ricky and Bobby set out fresh bites of mochi and manju, including seasonal treats such as sakura mochi, hailed by SF Weekly as one of the best things to eat or drink in San Francisco.
Try This: Manju
Together, the Okamura brothers make about 1,500 pieces of manju every day. They’ve been doing it for decades now, and have never used a recipe. Ricky Okamura told SFGate that he rapturously studied how his father created the bite-size masterpieces when he began working with him in 1973. “I never wrote anything down. It’s all in my head.” Judging by the droves of happy customers, the recipe-free manju’s working out just fine.
In the morning, Ricky forms the outer shell with mochi or baked flour to fill with his brother’s specialty: bean paste. Bobby starts later in the morning and spends his time preparing three kinds of bean paste, or anko, from sweetened adzuki or lima beans. The beans are cleaned, compressed, and turned into a fine powder, then cooked with sugar in a giant kettle.
Of all the regular manju, SeriousEats recommends the Age, a donut filled with smooth red beans and granulated sugar. The shop also offers seasonal treats, such as a strawberry manju—with fresh strawberries and a white lima-bean shell—in the early summer.