I first met Takehiro Wada at the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco in January 2016. Wadaman’s sesame booth was next to our local soy sauce and miso company whom I was there to support.
In between cooking demos and chatting up potential buyers, I strolled over to the Wadaman booth to taste some of its oils. While the gold and black sesame oils were lovely, the white sesame oil spoke to me immediately: elegant, bright, clear. This was like no other sesame oil I had ever experienced and I was captivated.
Hundreds of thousands of people come through the Fancy Food Show so my pestering questions to Wada were probably annoying. Who was this blond woman asking about the source of his sesame? His gently spoken JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization) handler also tended to step in when I approached, so I felt a bit of frustration at the inability to connect with him directly over those few days.
Once we were back in Japan, Wada kindly sent me a box of samples (seeds, pastes and oils), including some extra bottles of my new love: white sesame oil. We began to chat periodically via telephone and email and eventually a bond was formed. In May 2016, I had the opportunity to visit the Wadaman retail shop and factory, a 130-year-old family operation. Spending the day with Wada — slated to become the fifth-generation president of his family roastery — sealed the deal regarding our budding friendship and collaboration. I became a vocal advocate for Wadaman sesame and Wada came to understand my unwavering dedication to Japanese artisans.
Wadaman’s retail shop is located on a side street in Osaka and the facade and inner design is testament to their finely honed aesthetic sense. But the factory visit was what cinched my abject devotion to this product. Although Wadaman processes a minute amount of organic Japanese gold sesame seed, the bulk of its operation relies on seeds from contract farmers in other countries.
The white seeds are sourced from Ethiopia, Bolivia and Guatemala; the black from Bolivia, Myanmar and Cambodia; and the gold from Turkey. While the majority of Wadaman’s farmers grow their seeds conventionally, a small portion is grown organically. The seeds are packed in 50-kilogram burlap bags for shipping and the first step in processing involves running the seeds down a conveyor belt to take off debris.
Six cleaning steps later, they are ready for roasting: a three-step operation that involves low-high-low temperatures. I was particularly impressed by a last step whereby the seeds are shot through an apparatus that detects color — discolored and wrong colored seeds are pinged out with a laser-directed blast of air. This attention to detail is emblematic of the quality of work at Wadaman sesame.
After roasting, 50 percent of the seeds are sold as whole seeds, 15 percent ground and packed, 25 percent put through a four- or five-step millstone grinding process to emulsify them into unctuous pastes and a precious 1 percent pressed to make oil. The final 9 percent of the seeds is incorporated into furikake sprinklings, dressings or other miscellaneous sesame products.
All Wadaman sesame products are superior to similar ones on the market, but perhaps the oils are where one can taste and understand how truly exceptional Wadaman sesame is. Notably, the oil is first press — the most pristine oil possible to extract. Furthermore, Wadaman uses 5 liters of seeds to produce 1 liter of oil (a 20 percent yield), whereas other companies usually use only 2.1 liters of seeds for 1 liter of oil (a 45-50 percent yield), and the large sesame companies in Japan, such as Kadoya, employ n-hexane in the oil extraction process to further increase yields.
Witnessing the roasting process led to a crucial epiphany: The sesame roaster is just as important as the coffee roaster (an analogy that most of us can understand). In our area we have local, organically grown sesame and sometimes my husband grows it as well, but there is no question that my ability to roast our local seeds in a frying pan on the stove comes anywhere close to the expertise of a master sesame roaster.
Takehiro Wada’s father, Etsuji, is the current sesame roaster — and still roasts every day from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. — but Takehiro’s wife Mayuko is learning the art and eventually, after learning from her father-in-law in three to five years, will take over as roaster.
Takehiro was a newspaper correspondent for several years after university before backpacking around India and Tibet for a year and a half. But he came back to Wadaman after having his own epiphany. In writing an article about his family company, he came to realize the beauty and importance of his family’s vocation. And with that, in him rose a desire to be part of this craft and expand the business in a way that perhaps his father could not.
Each person contributes to the family business in a different manner. Because of his experience abroad, Takehiro is able to bridge the gap between Japan and the overseas market and slowly his family’s exceptional products are becoming available across the globe.
According to the Wadaman website, “Sesame seeds are high in nutrition and can add rich flavor and aroma to various kinds of dishes.” And, as what I believe to be the best-roasted sesame products in the world, Wadaman sesame adds exponentially more “flavor and aroma” than other sesame products, making it well worth the higher tariff.
Sugaharacho 9-5, Kita Ward, Osaka 530-0046; 06-6364-4387; www.wadaman.com; open Mon.-Fri. 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Sat. 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m; nearest station Minami-Morimachi