Esperanto be damned--candy is the real international language. Since Florence Ku opened the pan-Asian snack shop Kawaii Na in Lincoln Park in November, her store has gained a following among customers from many cultures, most of whom share a fervor for a particular treat: chocolate-covered sunflower seeds with a bright, sugary shell. Another across-the-board favorite is the chocolates made to look like colored pebbles. But the shop has a few things for more adventurous snackers too, including spicy dried wasabi peas and searingly sour Super Lemon hard candy. Ku's proud of the customers she's seen broaden their palates. "Sometimes it's very hard to try something new," she says philosophically.
The store brings out the magpie in everyone--it's easy to get carried away collecting shiny sweet treasures. A few American favorites appear in altered forms, like the little three-cornered bags of itty-bitty M&M's, but why bother when there are candy pacifiers, pink coconut-flavored marshmallows, sushi-shaped lollipops, and a slew of gummies made to resemble everything from fried eggs to hamburgers to corn on the cob? Everything's adorable--in fact, the store's name is Japanese for "Cute, huh?"
Ku's other business, a Chinatown outpost of the Hong Kong-based chain Aji Ichiban, offers more-esoteric confections. In addition to the candy, chips, and crackers found at Kawaii Na, Aji Ichiban carries dried fish, preserved plums and olives, peeled chestnuts, dried fruit, and other traditional Asian goodies. On a weekend afternoon, as dance music throbs overhead, a half-dozen red-jacketed young saleswomen work the multiethnic crowd, offering explanations and opinions. One extols the virtues of candied ginger, which, she says, serves medicinal purposes this time of year: "Old Chinese lady, when they cough, ginger help calm down cough." She points out the menthol-flavored preserved licorice root as another cold remedy. Nearby a Caucasian woman exclaims over chewy coconut candy wrapped in twists of colored tissue paper: "Oh, look at these! Look how pretty they are!" She's buying for her family's Easter baskets, and she's like a kid in, well, a candy store.
Ku moved here from China with her husband 12 years ago. Before opening the Aji Ichiban franchise in 2001, she worked in her father's take-out restaurant, Seven Star, on 47th and Kedzie. She was moved to start her own business after visiting an Aji Ichiban store in New York. "My husband say, 'How come in Chicago Chinatown we cannot find this kind of store?'" she says. She was already a fan of Aji Ichiban products, particularly the company's own brand of preserved plums. "They know all the flavors the customers like," she says. "Not very salty, not too sour. They use very good-quality fruit."
By last November business was steady enough for Ku to consider opening another franchise in Lincoln Park, where the proliferation of Japanese restaurants boded well for another Asian business. But the Aji Ichiban company wasn't sure an Asian snack shop could thrive in a primarily white neighborhood, so Ku opened Kawaii Na as a separate business. Traffic has been good, she says, and she hopes it will increase even more once the store begins carrying imported tea in the spring. Kawaii Na also offers custom gift baskets.
Much as she enjoys turning people on to new tastes, Ku admits that some ethnic preferences are tougher to overcome than others. At Aji Ichiban many non-Asians shy away from the dried fruit, some of which--such as hawthorn and the citronlike Buddha's hand fruit--are almost unknown in the United States. They also tend to be wary of unfamiliar forms of familiar fruits, like the sticky brown chunks of preserved lemon and the salted peach strips. But since Ku started putting out samples for tentative customers to nibble, the dried fruit has grown in popularity. The fish snacks, like the barbecue-flavored cuttlefish slices, are still a hard sell. "For Americans, 80 percent like candy, but 80 percent of Chinese like plums and fish," she says. Which is her favorite? "Actually, I like candies," she says, laughing.
Kawaii Na is at 2532 N. Clark, 773-880-9998. Aji Ichiban is at 2117-A S. China, 312-328-9998.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.