Pebu, a black sesame and white chocolate mousse and salted caramel dessert
Courtesy Momoka
FELT CUTE, WILL EAT LATER 18 Jun 2024 5 MIN

Attn India: Kawaii desserts have hit your neighbourhood

The not-too-sweet, but way-too-cute-to-eat pastry is here

I remember the first time I figured that Japanese desserts were a culinary sub-genre of their own. Scrolling through my Instagram feed, I found myself staring at a teddy bear with impossibly cute eyes and the roundest cheeks I had ever seen. Was it a toy? A ceramic sculpture?  But then a fork swooped in and, to my shock, skewered the cutie to reveal deep red jammy innards. I had just encountered my first kawaii dessert.  
 
Kawaii is Japanese for cute, but it’s more than an adjective. With its innocent, childlike features, kawaii enriches the seemingly mundane with joy. It’s a whole culture, and it’s hard to miss in the island country. In fashion, kawaii is the girl in Barbiecore on the streets; in galleries, it is the vibrant art of Takashi Murakami that makes you smile. And on our plates, it is that adorable, sweet something with big eyes—a Totoro-shaped cookie, a Hello Kitty cupcake, cat whiskers on a pancake, yellow Pikachu bread—it is all kawaii. And now, it’s becoming a thing in India.  
 
Delicate and artful, kawaii desserts, with their anthropomorphic shapes, make for really photogenic food. At Gaurav Kanwar’s Harajuku Tokyo Café in Tokyo, you will see diners transfixed to their phones, capturing a dessert that looks like a cat or a pig. Kanwar is aware that these desserts, with “their cute and colourful presentation, are highly Instagrammable” and thus, “popular among the social media-savvy generation.” But beyond their cute veneer also lies an introduction to a new flavour profile, in which ingredients like black sesame, yuzu, and matcha shine as mainstays.

At Momoka in Goa, where people queue up to take photos with the chocolate and raspberry compote-filled Liam’s Teddy Bear, lying sideways on a plate, there are other desserts that tiptoe around the circles of kawaii culture to settle into niche, nuanced flavours. Momoka’s chef, Brainard Colaco, acknowledges that the biggest challenge of setting up India’s first kissaten (a quaint Japanese café serving traditional teas and coffees) was “getting people to accept these flavour profiles”. The idea was to introduce not-so-sweet Japanese flavours using familiar bases: think green tea ice cream, black sesame cookies, and Nutella dorayaki, all of which have now become staples on restaurant menus.

Colaco originally set up Momoka in Bangkok, and now the Thai outpost acts as his station to test out new and developing trends, before bringing the dish (and the readily available ingredients) to his kissaten in Goa.  It took the collaborative efforts of three chefs at the Bangkok restaurant to develop the 3D mold for the famous teddy bear dessert before it found its way into India last year and “became a rage”.  
 
Unlike in Indian mithai, sweetness is considered secondary in Japanese desserts, and is derived from ingredients such as sweet potato, sticky rice, and adzuki bean. At Bengaluru’s Kawaii Mochi Bar, you can get your hands on chewy, glutinous Japanese rice cake ice creams that come in flavours ranging from red bean to milk. In the same city, there’s Shokupan Micro Bakery, which offers cat- and bear-shaped versions, among others, of the famous pillowy Japanese bread. Nearby, at Tokyo Sweets India, is a menu of perhaps the widest range of Japanese desserts that can be eaten on sticks, with chopsticks, and by hand. Their mochi with cherry blossom is sold out before you can say sakura. Elsewhere in India, actually in Mumbai, the newest Japanese café, Mokai, is fast gaining a loyal clientele. “We cook our items in an authentic fashion, and then we add our touch to it,” says founder Karreena Bulchandani of her flavoursome plates. In a standout dessert, Italian and Japanese flavours are fused together to make a Mocha-misu, made creamy (and vegan, and sugar-free) with Hokkaido milk. 
 
Across Pune and Goa, cafés such as Alag, Tokyo Bakery, and Amato are tiny new addresses that are big on Japan. Their Japanese cheesecakes may not have the cutesy stamp of kawaii desserts but their jiggly, souffle-like composition makes for great Instagram content, too. And did we tell you the best part? They taste like clouds in your mouth. 
 
Light and airy, with clever presentation and unique flavours, Japanese desserts are having a moment on our menus today, while showing us the way to a bolder, richer and more nuanced palate. It’s hard to tell whether India’s obsession is with the new flavours or the artful precision on plates, but Japanese confections are going nowhere.