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.
Partially down to the way Japanese meals are structured, and partially because they tend to specialise in one type of dish and not stray far from that, many Japanese restaurants don’t tend to offer desserts. When you do stumble across one that does serve a sweet course, a lot of the time it’ll be the perennial favourite, anmitsu. At first glance appearing to be a fruit salad, the closer you look the more you start to notice key Japanese flavours and ingredients within it. Sweetened red bean paste and green tea flavoured cream sit atop a mound of cubed kanten- clear water jelly made from red algae, and small round rice dumplings are anointed with a slick of kuromitsu black sugar syrup, before the whole dish is adorned with the selection of fresh or preserved fruits that first caught your attention. Shiratama dango are traditionally made from just rice flour and water, but we’ve added silken tofu to ours to make a softer, more delicate dango that dries out less and has an irresistibly bouncy, squidgy bite to it. All of the elements combine harmoniously to create a very refreshing dish, perfect for eating after a particularly rich or spicy meal or it makes an excellent snack on a hot Summer’s day.
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.