PETALING JAYA, Dec 24 — Tucked within Kampung Sungai Kayu Ara — just a few kilometres from 1 Utama Shopping Centre — is Old Hands Cafeteria run by 56-year old Okamoto Tatsuhiko and his wife.
Step inside and you will discover a gem that exudes a simple charm. It's a priceless spot as you can feel the love poured into everything from their bakes, desserts to drinks.
The decor is not fancy but created with a lot of heart. Hand-painted sketches depicting cats, a sumo wrestler and even a Totoro decorate the cafe that was converted from a tile showroom.
There are also touches of darumaka all over the place to bring luck. Potted greens also pepper the place.
You will also spy beautiful scenes from Japan on the walls — a nod towards Okamoto's hometown at Shizuoka — to keep away the homesick feelings.
Started in May this year, some already know of Old Hands Cafeteria as their handmade mochi became a viral sensation during the lockdown. But that offering just scratches the surface.
You will be surprised as Okamoto is a master baker having honed his craft for more than 30 years. His "old hands" have been shaping dough into simple, delicious bakes such as anpan filled with red bean paste or even panko crusted buns filled with Japanese curry.
If you're very lucky, you may also catch him tossing dough in the air for his pizza.
Okamoto's baking career started when he was 22, when he joined a bakery in his hometown after he graduated from university. In the beginning, he was only allowed to observe how they made the bread.
With what he picked up visually, he would practise with dough at home. Eventually he was allowed to "touch dough" after six months. His first few bakes were the classic anpan and butter roll.
He prefers to observe how the dough reacts in the oven— allowing him visual clues on the texture change — rather than just relying on recipes. In a previous interview with BFM Radio, Okamoto humbly confessed, "Honestly my skill is not very outstanding to another baker or some people. I just want to be dedicated to baking and doing the product sincerely."
Before he came to Malaysia, he spent 12 years in Singapore operating a bakery under the Yataro Group, a Japanese bread company from Shizuoka. The name may be unfamiliar to us but Okamoto shared that about 40 years ago, the company operated a bakery at Kimisawa here. When the Japanese supermarket closed, they moved their business to Singapore.
About seven years ago, he ended up in Malaysia. Originally it was to help set up a Japanese bakery in partnership with a local company but that deal fell through.
During the wait, the couple decided to operate a small cafe at The Japan Club where they served dishes like Japanese curry rice, omu rice and sandwiches. They even offered local dishes like laksa to the club members.
With the pandemic, the cafe had to be closed and Okamoto looked for an alternate way to do business. His original idea was to start a small home-based bakery selling his bread.
Through some mutual friends, he struck up a friendship with food and beverage consultants The Other Kitchen who also run a food delivery platform. They advised Okamoto that it would be better to set up a cafe.
A space was found just below their office at Glomac Centro. However, just before they could open their doors, the lockdown was announced and they had to rely on deliveries.
It was through social media that many discovered them even though they were relatively unknown. What everyone wanted during the lockdown was Old Hands Cafeteria's daifuku mochi.
That hand rolled delicacy filled with red bean paste was on everyone's wish list. As limited quantities are made each day, many would wait to pre-order the mochi online when the bookings opened. They would be sold out within minutes.
While Okamoto mainly handles the baking, it is Mrs Okamoto who gently hand shapes the mochi every day. Each fluffy cloud is truly made with love.
The couple had picked up the skills to make the mochi from observing how it is made at a friend's dessert shop at Shizuoka.
The daifuku mochi skin uses a mixture of imported Japanese flour and their secret ingredient to get its soft, slightly chewy texture. The red bean paste or anko is exceptional with a distinct flavour. As the Japanese prefer a sweeter tasting red bean paste, they tweaked the sugar levels to better suit Malaysian palates.
A combination of two types of azuki red beans are used to create the chunky red bean paste known as tsubuan. It's a small batch process as a lot of hard work goes into preparing it.
Every day, Mrs Okamoto stirs the paste by hand for one hour to get the right texture and consistency. They don't take any shortcuts. It's just pure hard work to get that paste mushy but still retaining a chunky texture with slightly smashed whole red beans.
Each soft fluffy daifuku mochi is generously stuffed with anko to make each bite a satisfying one. Oishi!
When you drop by the cafeteria, you must try their buns which come out fresh from the oven at 10.30am. They have many regulars who drop by for their assortment of buns.
The buns are soft with a slight golden toasted edge that makes you want to reach for more. They are made without preservatives and artificial softeners.
If you love the anko in the daifuku mochi, then the anpan is a must. Or look for the Japanese kare pan where the bun has a slight chewy texture and a crisp panko coating with a delicious Japanese curry filling.
There's also crowd favourites like the cinnamon rolls or the sultana raisin almond buns. There's a bun for everyone from the simple butter roll to a kohi or coffee flavour bun.
You also have buns filled with a choice of tuna mayonnaise or egg mayonnaise. Occasionally you get special flavours like this week, it's custard. Prices for the buns start from RM4.50.
Pack a few home and you can enjoy them for breakfast or a teatime snack. The buns are baked in small batches to keep them fresh, hence you see Okamoto walking up and down to check on his bakes at the ovens placed in front of the cafeteria.
You can also snack on different desserts here. There's adorable taiyaki (RM4.50 each) with their fish shapes; get them in three fillings from red bean, dark chocolate and cream cheese. You can pack them home and revive their crispy texture with helpful tips from Okamoto.
There's also yuzu burnt cheesecake for a creamy treat with a hint of citrus. If you love chocolate just like Okamoto, there's chocolate brownie, chocolate cookies and raku chocolate for a creamy decadent treat.
Don't forget to also order their drinks. It's a small curated selection which uses Kyoto sourced matcha, hojicha and genmaicha from the Marukyu Koyamaen brand.
The unsweetened drinks have a lovely rich and fragrant taste. If you're a huge red bean paste fan, their red bean matcha latte will be your new go-to drink. It balances out the sweet red bean paste with the slight bitterness from the fragrant matcha whisked with creamy milk perfectly.
Even the hojicha latte is good with a rich, roasted tea taste. They also serve genmaicha latte with toasted brown rice tea flavours, coffee and two types of tea.
As dine-in has resumed, they offer a small all-day breakfast menu. There's an toast that combines their red bean paste with a touch of butter on toasted bread. If you want a more substantial meal, there's a mixed sandwich with tuna and egg mayonnaise. You can also dine on scrambled eggs, chicken sausage with a fresh salad and the bun of the day.
The hand tossed pizzas have various toppings such as Japanese curry vegetables, chicken nanban, ebi or shrimps, and chicken teriyaki. The portion is just nice for a solo diner. Prices range from RM18 to RM22.
Even though it may be famous for their food, the cafeteria has also become a place to share a piece of Japanese culture.
When they are not busy, Okamoto teaches Japanese to those who work side by side with him. Hence you may spot a white board with Japanese phrases or words. With the relaxing vibe here, some diners have even started to draw and do calligraphy here.
Next year, they hope to create a cultural centre where people can pop over to learn arts and crafts in the evening,
Old Hands Cafeteria, 1-13, Glomac Centro, Lorong Masjid 1, Kampung Sungai Kayu Ara, Petaling Jaya. Open: 9am to 5pm. Closed on Monday and Thursday. Tel:+6011-54113398. Instagram: @oldhands.cafe/