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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

Chocolate Factory: Koo-ki Sushi are so beautiful, they dare to be eaten.

On a Roll

Suedy's Koo-ki Sushi confections are sweet, edible art

By Todd Inoue

THE IDEA began, as most good ones do, in the kitchen. In December 1993, Karen Sasaki was cooking up some Rice Krispies Treats. She spread the warm, gooey cereal and marshmallow mixture across a greased pan. Delicately pushing with her fingertips, the texture reminded her of the sushi rice she would splay across a sheet of nori when helping her grandmother make futomaki. Inspired, an idea began to form: What if sushi were made with candy toppings and Rice Krispies?

An illustrator and designer in Silicon Valley, Sasaki took the idea to her sister, Janice Murai, a teacher's aide, and together they embarked on an educational journey that combined sushi making, confectionary and the food business. They cruised the Fancy Foods show in San Francisco to make sure nobody else had their idea. They learned all they could from cooking and business classes, many taken through continuing education. When they signed up for a sushi-making course held at Sunnyvale High School, they were always the last to leave.

"I don't know if it's because we were picky or slow," Sasaki remembers. "We tried real hard to make sure the centers were in the middle. It was really good practice and we learned the whole process."

After much experimentation, a few chocolate sushi prototypes—ebi, maguro, tamago and futomaki in candy form—were created.

In 1994, Sasaki came across a magazine ad for a "Better Homes & Gardens Holiday Cookie Contest." It promised a grand prize of $5,000 and the pride of up-ending Stepford Wives snickerdoodles with something completely out of left field. Sasaki and Murai knew they had a winner, but upon reading the fine print, they learned they would have to give up all rights, title and interest to their chocolate sushi idea. They tucked the entry sheet away in a scrapbook, kept their recipe and formed Suedy's (named after Karen's Japanese middle name) Koo-ki (as in "cookie") Sushi the next year.

Ten years later, the decision to do it themselves proved shrewd. Sitting in the company's ultraclean, 3,800-square-foot Jury Court headquarters in an industrial office park off of 880 and Gish Road, Sasaki reminds me of aunts I've seen at family reunions—a modest, smart woman with an easy laugh, drinking green tea and pushing food on you. (I leave with some samples plus kiwis and persimmons from a relative's tree.)

Koo-ki Sushi's chocolate factory and "showroom" (a table and shelves in the reception area) is a family-run operation. Sasaki and her mother work full-time, they employ one full-time chocolatier and four part-time staffers. Murai passed away in May 2004, but her spirit lives on in the bloodline of labor formed by cousins, aunts, uncles and in-laws that punch in during busy times.

"It's a social thing," says Sasaki. "Probably anybody who is related to us and lives in the area has come and done something."

Their attention to detail inspires awe. The crisped-rice base, with a bit of green tea "wasabi" peeking out for authenticity, is topped with flavored chocolates, each hand-painted and molded to uncanny specifications. Take a bite and the mind reels—the maguro is actually berry-flavored chocolate, the tamago egg has a lemon meringue filling, the avocado inside the California roll tastes like piña colada, the salmon roe is gummy apricot candy. The ebi—which has a white almond filling—looks so real, it requires finger touch verification.

Single nigiri chocolates start at $14 and arrive on visually appealing chocolate "kozara" dishes. A "chef's choice"-type combo comes wrapped in imported Japanese washi ($30-$50) or lacquer ($30-$70) boxes. All are garnished with ginger-flavored roses, tiny bottles of chocolate "soy" sauce and fingertip pyramids of green tea "wasabi." They also make consumable lucky cats and chopsticks.

Koo-ki Sushi enjoys a robust online business. Many customers ask if they'll open a shop—an idea they're entertaining, but Sasaki says she wants to make sure they can handle the production.

She remembers the first big break: providing gift boxes for a fundraising event for San Francisco's Japantown senior center, Kimochi. They put wrapped obento boxes out on each plate. It was a big hit, but first, guests had to get over their reluctance to desecrate the edible art candy by actually eating it.

"I tell them to get a knife and make the first cut," Sasaki says. "After the first crunch, then it doesn't look like a cat. Once they use a knife, then they eat it."

Suedy's Koo-ki Sushi
Order online at www.kookisushi.com.
Visit their showroom at 830 Jury Court, Suite 1, San Jose.
Phone: 408.947.8228.
Hours: Open 11am-6pm
Tue-Fri, 11-4pm Sat, closed Sun-Mon.

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From the March 30-April 5, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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