Living in Japan as I do, Japanese food has become a daily part of my life. However, the scope which Japanese indigenous cooking covers is far wider than most non-Japanese realize. Ask most visitors Japan to name a Japanese food and you’ll get a rather limited selection of the usual suspects: sushi, sashimi, okonomiyaki, ramen and so on.
However, one area of cuisine that more and more visitors are developing an appreciation for is Japanese desserts. The intricacy, care and attention with which Japanese desserts are prepared and presented can rival anywhere else in the world. You’ll also find a hugely diverse range of ingredients, tastes, textures and flavours not typically associated with most European and American notions of sweets.
Photo: Taku on Flickr
Whatever your tastes, hopefully you’ll find something here to whet your appetite next time you have a taste for something sweet in Japan. Here’s my top 5:
Photo: James on Flickr
This delicious and simple sweet snack is a stable of street stalls the length and breadth of Japan. Small, and shaped like a fish, this traditional sweet is best enjoyed in winter, while served piping hot from your local street vendor. The taiyaki is composed of an outer shell make of toasted pancake mix with a sweet filling. The pancake mix takes on an almost pastry like consistency as it is cooked, making this a dish quite easily accessible to western palates. There are a variety of fillings on offer, but the most common ones are anko (sweet red bean paste), custard, cream and chocolate. For something with a distinctly Japanese flavour it’s hard to argue past the red bean paste. However, for pure delicious delight, I have to say its custard for me every time. Calorific? Yes. Unhealthy? Most certainly. But it tastes oh so good!
#2 Green Tea Ice Cream
Photo: Kim Unertl on Flickr
The bitter aftertaste of Macha (green tea) may not be to everyone’s palate, but I have to say I’m a big fan. So upon arriving in Japan for the first time 10 years ago, I had to give Macha Ice Cream a try. I am delighted to say I was not disappointed. This delicious, creamy dessert, with its distinctive emerald green complexion is a perfect and refreshing way to round off a traditional Japanese food like sushi, yakitori and so on. The smooth ice cream cleanses the palate, while the rich flavour of the tea eases your stomach and leaves you feeling a sense of contentment. A great way to round off a great meal.
#3 Mochi Ice Cream
Photo: Honou on Flickr
I guess one could argue this is a form of fusion cooking, taking one of Japan’s best known desserts, mochi, and infusing it with ice cream. For those who are new to mochi, it is basically a sticky rice bi-product. The aforementioned rice is pounded continuously until it forms a sticky paste. Sweeteners are then added to the paste before it is formed into cakes and other such things. In this case, the mochi is formed into small cakes about the size of a fist. They are then filled with one of a variety of ice creams. Green tea is the mochi ice cream of choice for most of my Japanese friends, but personally I’ve always been a fan of the strawberry variety. Anyone who has ever travelled to Hong Kong or China during the mid-autumn festival should already have a good idea of what to expect from mochi ice cream. It looks and tastes almost exactly the same as the famous “frozen moon cake”.
Photo: greekninja216 on Flickr
Dango is a type of sweet dumpling made from mochiko (rice flour), a mochi derivative. On its own, dango can taste somewhat bland, so it is often flavoured with sugar syrup or topped off with refined sugar. The most famous variety of dango is the “Kibi Dango” one of the most famous foods to come out of Okayama Prefecture in Japan’s southern Chugoku region, some 3 and a half hours south of Tokyo by Shinkansen. Kibi Dango is a favourite amongst small children after being immortalized in the classic Japanese fairy tale Momotaro. Dango is best enjoyed as an accompaniment to green tea.
#5 Sata Andagi
Photo: Koji Horaguchi on Flickr
Do you like a good doughnut? If you have the same appreciation for the famous sweet snack as I do then you may well want to give Sata Andagi a try.
This famous Okinawan sweet is as delicious as it is simple to prepare. A simple batter of flour, sugar and eggs is rolled into balls and then deep fried. The best way to prepare Sata Andagi is to fry the balls just to the point where the outside is brown and whilst the inside still retains a light, fluffy, cake-like consistency. Highly recommended, but leave the cholesterol measuring kit at home!
Almost as important as the sweets themselves is the way in which you enjoy them. Many of the sweets I have mentioned today are a lot richer, heavier and more filling than conventional desserts you may be used to in Europe and the US. Therefore, in Japan it isn’t that unusual to go to a specific dessert café and enjoy only a dessert accompanied by a tea or coffee with a friend. Often you will find these cafes have a very traditional Japanese layout, with the desserts served by immaculately presented staff in kimonos or other traditional attire. The whole “tea house” atmosphere these places project certainly enriches the experience of trying these desserts for the first time. It’s certainly a far cry from an overpriced coffee and a honey-glazed ring from crispy crème!
Photo: photoantenna on Flickr
Ettiquette is also important in these situations, and the first time you venture into one of these tea houses, I really recommend taking a Japanese friend with you. They can show the best way to enjoy the dessert and the accompanying drink together, as well as perhaps provide some cultural insight, helping you get the most from the experience.
And if you over-indulge, don’t worry. In my next article I’ll be giving you information on how to join a gym and lose weight in Japan. Happy eating!!