Asian Cuisine: Japanese Desserts
The Japanese uses amazing ingredients to create desserts!
Japanese desserts or wagashi are artful and unique confections made mostly of plant-based ingredients. These desserts have played many roles throughout the history of Japan. Centuries ago, certain Japanese confections were specifically eaten for festivals, while others were used as specialty foods to offer as a sacrifice to sacred deities. Moreover, these desserts had a more simpler purpose. For many years, Japanese desserts were eaten with tea because the subtle sweetness of the confections complemented the taste of certain teas. Today, Japanese confections are still a part of the Japanese diet. However, some of the recipes are altered to give a new flavor to an old recipe. The Japanese eats these desserts after dinner, as a snack and with tea.
Mochi, a traditional Japanese glutinous (sticky) rice cake, has been enjoyed by the Japanese for thousands of years. The ancient method of making mochi is a ceremony called, “Mochitsuki.” The Mochitsuki ceremony is the pounding of steamed rice into a paste with a wooden mallet called a “kine” in a large mortar called a, “usu.” The glutinous rice used to make mochi comes from “mochigome,” a stickier, sweeter kind of rice. In Japan, mochi is a traditional food for the Japanese New Year. Originally, mochi was presented as an offering to kami or gods, at shrines, then cut into pieces and eaten for good fortune and health. Today, mochi is eaten year round and used as an ingredient to make other Japanese desserts.
Shiruko, also known as ashiruko, is a traditional Japanese sweet soup made of sweetened adzuki (azuki) beans and usually topped with mochi. Other toppings, including candied chestnuts or glutinous rice flour dumplings work equally well as a substitute for mochi. The small reddish-brown adzuki beans used to make shiruko are left whole or mashed (removing skins) to create a soupy bean paste sweetened sugar or condensed milk. Adzuki beans contain a bitter element called “tannin” that would affect the taste of the soup if left untreated. To remove tannin, the beans are boiled and drained several times to remove the accumulating film that floats on top of the boiling water. Over a century ago, making shiruko was a tedious process. Today, the conventional cooking method is still an option. However, instant types that require adding water are available. In Japan, shiruko is available year round and served hot.
Taiyaki is a traditional Japanese cake baked into the shape of a fish and stuffed with a sweetened adzuki bean paste. “Tai” means sea-bream (fish) and “yaki” means to bake or grill. Taiyaki is made from pancake or waffle batter and can be stuffed with other fillings, such as custard or chocolate. It is believed that Naniwaya, a confectionery shop in Azabu, Tokyo created taiyaki in 1909. Today, taiyaki is found in an array of places around Japan like food courts, supermarkets and Japanese festivals.
In the mid 1970s, a song about taiyaki called, “Oyoge! Taiyaki-kun (Swim! Taiyaki)” was written for a children's program. However, it became popular all over Japan and still holds the record for being the country's largest hit single.