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.
Every now and then you come across an ingredient that you fall head-over-heels in love with, you cook everything imaginable with it and spend hours dreaming about how to get just one more recipe out of it. For us, that ingredient is murasaki imo, or purple sweet potato. Similar to the pale yellow or white fleshed sweet potatoes usually favoured by the Japanese, these purple potatoes have more dry matter than the orange fleshed American variety, and a much stronger taste. A rich, fruity, almost winey flavour, an otherworldly, deep purple colour and the added bonus that they are packed full of vitamins make them a winner in our books for savoury dishes or desserts.
Japanese meals do not traditionally have a dessert course or end with something sweet. The time for a sweet treat is at around either 10am or 3pm, as a contrasting flavour to go with the slightly bitter green tea that workers would normally stop for. The confections served with tea vary from moulded higashi of sugar and rice flour to fresh fruits, and from jelly-like warabi mochi made from bracken starch to small French style cakes and tarts such as this Okinawan creation. Murasaki imo is mashed, enriched with cream, butter and sugar then piped into crisp pastry cases, just enough for three or four bites before you get back to work.
The first time we visited Japan, we were suprised to see quite how universally loved French style patisserie was. Many menus had cream filled choux buns nestled alongside traditional sweets like wagashi and daifuku mochi, and there were countless little bakeries on street corners selling Mont Blanc cakes and millefeuille. This love of cakes, especially cream puffs, led to the founding of one of Japan’s most popular fast food chains- Beard Papa’s- which has become such a well known brand that their beloved mascot even appeared in the 2012 Disney film, Wreck-it Ralph.
In our homage to this, we’ve combined a classic French craquelin choux bun with a filling made from milk-caramel and matcha green tea to create an understated, elegant tea-time treat with real Japanese flavour. These little morsels have a crisp, crumbly shell on top reminiscent of another of the country’s favourite baked goods, melon-pan, and go perfectly with a cup of tea when you need to recharge towards the end of the day.