Story by Samson Reiny
Photo by Olivier Koning
“I’ll take two of these and four of those,” the customer says, pointing into the display case at Nisshodo Candy Store. She zeroes in on the white and pink rice flour confections lightly powdered with potato starch (to prevent stickiness): the chichi dango, a smooth, delicious marriage of cream and sugar. “And a half-pound of those.”
Chichi Dango: Mexican rodeo star? Stage name of an exotic dancer? It's the most popular of the heavenly mochi confections at Nisshodo Candy Store in Kalihi.
“Those good?” asks another customer, clearly a Nisshodo virgin.
“Ohh,” she groans, one hand on her chest, the other in the air, palm out. “They’re soo good. … Actually, I’ll take a pound.”
Nisshodo’s most popular (and addicting) treat, chichi dango has been a local favorite for almost a century.
Mike Hirao, who two years ago took over the family business from 90-year-old dad Richard, lets on that the secret recipe consists of condensed milk, mochi and sugar “along with some other stuff.” It all started when his grandfather Asataro Hirao revisited his hometown of Hiroshima, where a local candy manufacturer shared his trade secrets with him. In 1921, after returning to Hawai‘i with recipe in hand and apprenticing under the dessert-making Tasaka family (famous on Maui for their “guri guri” ice cake), Asataro went out on his own and opened Nisshodo, which means “house of the rising sun,” in downtown Honolulu. Business has been sweet ever since.
Mike has no plans to move from his current venue, a humdrum warehouse unit in the back corner of a tiny strip mall in Kalihi, because after ninety years in business, why tinker with success? Although third-party retailers like Shirokiya sell Nisshodo’s confections, regulars visit the warehouse to custom-order: most likely chichi dango, maybe monaka (rice cracker with azuki bean jam) and perhaps kuri manju (baked bun stuffed with lima bean paste).
A retired banker, Mike says he feels happier and healthier now that he’s running the family business. But with the newer peanut butter and coconut mochi flavors and, of course, the chichi dango always at his fingertips, how does he resist indulging in one treat after another?
“Well,” he says admiring his powdery perfections, “I really try not to.”