Of all the flowers one could associate with Japan, from the chrysanthemum of the royal throne to the short lived morning glories and the ume which marks the official start of spring, the sakura or cherry blossom is the flower that most captures the hearts of the people. A stark black skeleton of a tree stretching limbs skywards, wreathed in soft pink garlands that delicately flutter from its fingertips creating a carpet of blush snow underfoot- one of the most celebrated images signalling the progression of the seasons, and catching a glimpse of this natural wonder has been a national obsession since the eighth century. Poetry is composed, love is declared and sake is drunk (often in excessive quantities) as people party in the shade of the cherry trees and take part in one of Japan’s favourite pastimes- Hanami, or ‘looking at flowers’. School children, salarymen, old ladies, weather beaten fishermen, celebrities and priests alike all stop to view the beauty of the sakura blossoms, and like the ethereal blossoms themselves, contemplate the fleeting nature of existence and the meaning of life.
The sakura petals are used in all manner of foods, from the salted preserved flowers pressed into cookies and wagashi, to brightly coloured syrups added to lattes and ice creams. The flower itself has a complex but delicate flavour and a hint of bitterness somewhere between the sour cherries that one would assume it tastes of, and its close cousin the almond; even when eaten, this most philosophical of flowers manages to echo Japan’s cultural beliefs.
As our tribute to these beautiful blossoms that herald the forthcoming warmer weather, we’ve composed a parfait dessert combining sweet, sour, bitter and creamy elements along with cubes of soft sponge cake and brittle shards of nutty caramel- the perfect sundae to eat whilst reclining on the floor, wishing you were in the shade of a gnarled old cherry tree. Although there are a lot of components in this recipe, they can nearly all be made in advance and stored until needed, meaning that a tasty reminder of spring can be whipped together in a matter of minutes.
Perhaps coming by its name through a translation error, or maybe an evolution of an earlier Western recipe, Japanese strawberry shortkeki bears little resemblance to the dessert of the same name eaten across America and the UK, and has grown to become the nation’s most widely purchased cake. A celebration, no matter how small, would be incomplete without a gleaming snowy-white, cream-covered, red berry studded shortcake; it is even the Christmas cake of choice and a flood of signs reminding you to order yours pop up in bakeries from October onwards.
The cake is, in its purest form, an incredibly light and fluffy genoise sponge in two or three layers, filled with silky whipped cream and juicy strawberries, and iced with more of the same. The success of such a simply presented cake depends greatly on the quality of its ingredients: enormous, fragrant Amaou strawberries from Fukuoka, the finest eggs from free range chickens fed on speciality grains, the richest, tastiest cream from Hokkaido, and flour and sugar with refined flavours far surpassing those you would normally expect from basic ingredients. Getting hold of Fukuokan berries in England is nigh on impossible, we’re in luck though since Britain grows some of the finest strawberries in the world and the first crops are just starting to come into season, meaning right now is the perfect time to enjoy this most Disney princess-like of confections.
As was the case across much of the world, sugar didn’t become widely available in Japan until the late 1800s- it was an expensive luxury ingredient exclusively for the kitchens of the wealthy and was used by artisan craftsmen to create elegant desserts and sweets. Outpriced by the upper classes, the sweet cravings of everyone else were instead satisfied by a uniquely Japanese ingredient; a mellow, toasty, nutty, yellow flour called kinako. Made from finely ground roasted soy beans, kinako has a delicate sweetness, much more subdued than that of sugar, but more than just sweetness, it imparts a wonderful flavour of its own wherever it is used- a distinctive, warming, caramelly mixture of freshly popped corn and roasted nuts. Typically used as a powdery topping for sticky rice cakes like daifuku, warabi mochi bracken jellies, or heaped atop a mound of snowy shaved ice, kinako also makes a fantastic flavouring for baked treats like airy chiffon cakes and impossibly light French style cookies.
When one thinks of French cookies, macarons are normally the first image that springs to mind- the perfectly round sandwiched confections, with their shiny, smooth outer shell and concealed creamy centre- and, while kinako does make for an exquisitely flavoured macaron, I’d much rather eat this humble powder in a gutsier, less delicate form. That form is in the macaron’s unassuming, rustic country cousin, the dacquoise. More straightforward to make than a macaron, the dacquoise uses much of the same ingredients and techniques- folding ground almonds and icing sugar into beaten egg whites- but produces a much cakier cookie, with a meltingly chewy centre and a craggy crisp exterior. The nutty aromatic toasted kinako pairs wonderfully with the almond in the cookie shell, and the brown sugar in the silky buttercream filling heightens the rich, warming, caramel flavours. Despite their homely appearance, these dacquoise make a fantastic addition to an afternoon tea or packed as part of a picnic for your next blossom viewing party.
Like a large number of foods popular in Japan today, Purin owes its name and heritage to visiting Portuguese traders who, in the sixteenth century, brought over their jiggly, set custard dessert, pudim. Much like the French crème caramel or the Latin American flan, caramelised sugar is topped with a sweetened egg and milk mixture then steamed in a bain-marie before being inverted onto a plate and served with the caramel on top- the slightly bitter caramel sauce creating an elegant contrast of colours and offsetting the sweetness of the custard.
Although it is a staple snack or dessert all year round, purin to me marks the start of Summer; a chilled, lightly set, creamy custard has a wonderful soothing effect and refreshes your spirits after a hard day at work in sweltering temperatures. We like to infuse the milk and cream with the toasty, almost caramel-like flavour of hōjicha, roasted green tea. Eating just a spoonful of this dessert brings back comforting childhood memories of lifting the rim of a cereal bowl to your lips and drinking the milk after you’d finished the bowl of crunchy flakes. You could easily swap out the hōjicha in this recipe for vanilla to create a classic European version or matcha powder to make an intensely coloured, green tea flavoured variation. However you choose to flavour it, serve your purin with a handful of fresh seasonal berries to really highlight the time of year.
The powdered Chinese green tea favoured by the Southern Song dynasty arrived on the shores of Japan in the late twelfth century, carried by the monk Eisai Zenji who had returned home from studying Chan Buddhism. After two hundred years of being a purely religious beverage, Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa secularised the performance of making and drinking tea and it slowly evolved into the ritualistic ceremony we are familiar with today. Whilst nearly every country the world over now drinks the later-developed steeped or infused tea, the powdered green tea known to us as matcha has remained a singularly Japanese drink, even being lost to the Chinese during the Mongol invasion. The differences between the two types of tea are remarkable, to the extent that even some of the most enthusiastic of Western tea drinkers can sometimes find the deep green flavour and slight bitterness of matcha difficult or off-putting. We’ve found that the easiest way to introduce the new and perhaps unexpected flavour of matcha to people is through desserts or baked goods such as these delicate, crisp tuile biscuits. The buttery tuile batter and drizzle of rich, silky white chocolate help to balance out the mild astringent taste of the tea to create a biscuit perfect for snacking on or for accompanying a cup of your favourite brewed tea.
Simultaneously being both the lightest, most delicate, cloud-like bun imaginable and the richest, sweetest, most succulent pork belly possible, kakuni manjū are perhaps the ultimate variation on a bacon sandwich and frankly, I can’t think of a better combination of meat and bread that I’ve ever eaten.
Like the sweet, soy braised pork that fills them, manjū– or hirata buns to give them their recently adopted American name- owe their heritage to Chinese steamed buns such as the snowy white stars of many a dim sum menu, char siu bao. During the two hundred and twenty year period of isolation, Japan closed off its borders to the outside world, and the only way in or out was through Nagasaki, which quickly became what is now the country’s oldest Chinatown. Workers and traders travelling through the port took with them their favourite home comforts which were quickly adopted by local restaurants and yatai (food carts) before spreading across the country. Slow braised dongpo pork from Eastern China and pillowy mantou steamed bread from the North were two such dishes that arrived in this influx of unfamiliar cuisine, and were the culinary parents of this most delicious of sandwiches (perhaps with a little matchmaking courtesy of both Japan and China’s occupation of Taiwan and its now famous gua bao split steamed buns).
Breaking from tradition, we’ve added a few extras to our kakuni manjū- the creaminess of the mayonnaise and the crisp, refreshing bite of cucumber and shredded spring onions help to lift and round out the flavour of the bun. Eat them on their own with a few drinks, or as is now common practice, as an accompaniment to a deep, meaty bowl of ramen for the ultimate pork filled meal.
A dark, unrefined, deeply caramel flavoured ‘black’ sugar is cultivated and processed on the Southern Japanese island of Okinawa. The almost constant sunshine, volcanic soils and nutrients provided by sea spray have created the ideal growing conditions for producing this mineral rich sweetener which has, quite naturally, found its way into a lot of both island and mainland Japanese cuisine. Pieces of the dense, almost raisiny tasting sugar are often consumed as a sweet along with green tea, or used as a flavouring in rafute pork stew, but our favourite way to use it is in these steamed cakes that we first encountered in a Tokyo depachika. Fresh from the steamer these light, airy cakes remind me of the geothermal, mountainous areas of Japan- their craggy, ruptured exterior, internal veins of rich gooey syrup and vents issuing jets of hot air. They are best eaten greedily, while still scalding hot, to really enjoy the texture and contrasting flavours of the delicate dough and the random nuggets of sugar.