Musashibō Benkei- a key hero in Japanese folklore and a warrior monk of great prowess- is rumoured to be instrumental in the creation of one of the country’s most popular street foods, the dorayaki. Hiding from one of his many foes in a farmer’s house while he recovered from wounds inflicted upon him, he accidentally left his ceremonial gong behind upon leaving the dwelling. The farmer searched for the hero near and far, but to no avail, and not knowing what the object was used for, he placed the gong in a fire and fried little round pancakes on the metal surface. Wrapping the sweet, hot discs around a ball of mashed red beans the treat was born, albeit in a far more fanciful way than the reality of them being based on a Portuguese sponge cake recipe. However you choose to believe they came about, these little gong cakes have become an icon of Japanese cuisine, thanks in part to them being the favoured food of a futuristic robotic cat called Doraemon from the manga of the same name.
Fluffy sponge discs, warmly fragrant with honey and faintly scented with sweet mirin wine, sandwiched around a smooth filling of pureed azuki beans, dorayaki were our first encounter with street food in Japan and helped spark our obsession with recreating the flavours of the country. The ubiquitous little cakes can be bought in nearly every convenience store or bakery, from vendors on street corners and festival markets, even from kiosks on railway station platforms, and now hopefully you’ll try making them at home too. After you’ve perfected cooking your own dorayaki, try experimenting with other traditional fillings such as custard, mashed chestnuts, sweetened whipped cream or the strangely comforting margarine and maple syrup- the last one greatly inspired by the American breakfast staple.
One day in the warren-like shopping arcades of Asakusa, on our first trip to Tokyo, we spotted an enormous queue of people slowly leading past the main Sensō-Ji temple and associated buildings to a wooden food counter set into a wall. Being of the inquisitive type, and knowing that if locals are willing to queue for something then it must be good, we joined the line and patiently waited between a group of school girls and a venerable elderly lady with a walking stick who steadfastly refused to take our place in line. The queue stopped and started. Twenty or thirty people would buy something wrapped in a paper bag and leave, then more waiting before another twenty or thirty people moved along, all the while the smell of freshly baked goods was building ever stronger and filling our minds with suspense. What were we queueing for? Was it savoury or sweet? Was there a choice? The possibility that the language barrier would prove too hard to break through and us end up with nothing flashed through my mind. As we approached the shop front we could make out that they were selling only one thing, large round bread buns which people were greedily eating from paper bags as roving gangs of hoodlum sparrows harassed them for stray crumbs. By now we had waited for around half an hour- a rich, sweet, vanilla scented thirty minutes; we got to the stall and found ourselves confronted by a wall of undecipherable Kanji, except for two romanized words- Melon Pan ¥200. That settled it, we awkwardly ordered two melon pan and shied away to the shade of a gingko tree to see what we had been waiting so long for.
Peeling back the paper wrapper we revealed a pair of relatively plain looking bread rolls, around twenty centimetres wide, light golden brown, attractively scored in a criss-cross, melon rind pattern, but pretty unremarkable- until we tore into them that is. A brittle, aromatic, sugary cookie crust shattered and gave way to a warm, delicate, butter enriched bread, lighter in texture than a brioche but without giving up any of its richness. This unassuming roll was one of the most ethereal breads I had ever eaten and within two minutes it was all gone and I found myself wanting to rejoin the queue for a second taste, realising only then why people were buying them in fives and sixes rather than individual buns.
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.
Wagashi- traditional Japanese confectionery- tends to be an elegant and artistic representation of the season. As we’ve recently passed the equinox and the cooler nights are starting to extend, nature is gradually turning from green to red and it’s time to embrace the change and eat something a little more Autumnal. Alongside kabocha, mushrooms and persimmons, sweet potatoes are one of the key flavours that the Japanese look forward to eating during shokuyoku no aki or ‘the increased appetite of autumn’ and one of most popular ways to enjoy them is as a smooth, firm bar of imo yōkan.
Yōkan is one of the oldest forms of sweet still eaten regularly across Japan and is essentially a block of jellied mashed azuki beans, or in this case, mashed sweet potatoes. We’ve enhanced our yōkan further with the addition of pieces of intense, almost chestnut-tasting, candied sweet potato to exaggerate the earthy, woodland flavour and add an extra texture to the jelly. This delicately coloured, refreshing treat is the perfect accompaniment to a cup of matcha both in looks and taste, the sweet gel coating your mouth, balancing and rounding out the bitterness of the tea.
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.
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.
Of all of the varieties of pancake available in Japan, the fish-shaped taiyaki sold by street vendors are the ones we’re always drawn to. A sweet, tender waffley outer shell, hiding its scalding hot filling of red bean paste or on rare occasions custard or white beans. Historically they came about as a seasonal variation of imagawayaki during the Meiji era, changing the squat cylindrical mould into one shaped like a sea-bream, a fish that only the wealthy could afford and that was generally reserved for festivals. The anko (red bean) filling is slightly off-putting to many westerners, so we’ve opted for the milder, smoother shiro-an (white bean) filling which has a soft marzipan texture to it and a slightly nutty taste.
To make taiyaki you’ll need a cast-iron taiyaki pan, if you don’t have one then you can use the same recipe to make shiro-an dorayaki- just fry the batter as small round pancakes and sandwich the filling between them.