Destination JS explores the sites, shops, and eateries surrounding Japan Society or specializing in Japanese goods.
Pocky and green tea ice cream are all very well. I’ll even grant you Hi-Chews. But if you’re looking for more traditional Japanese sweets, turn your eyes to the world of gooey rice and red bean paste.
This week at Japan Society, Luane Kohnke, author of Gluten Free Cookies, and Nicole Bermsensolo, founder of Japanese confectionery Kyotofu introduce visitors to the little-known tradition of Japanese sweets (making heavy use of rice, sweetened beans, and fruit ingredients like yuzu, many Japanese desserts are naturally gluten free).
To mark the event, which promises tastes of miso brownies, green tea cupcakes, and yuzu muffins, I stopped by Katagiri on the Upper East Side to pick up some treats. The store claims the distinction of being the oldest Japanese grocery in the U.S., and in the vein of nearby Dainobu, offers everything from fresh fish to bento.
As I stepped gratefully into the warmth of the store, I made straight for a glass cabinet to the side. Inside sat an assortment of the kind of packaged Japanese sweets you find in all the train stations in Japan. Seeing as I didn’t want to buy an entire box, I purchased three individual sweets from store.
|Delectable dorayaki. Via.|
Having enjoyed 7-Eleven dorayaki many times while studying abroad in Japan, I decided to go with this one first. The concept is fairly straightforward: take a round, pancake-like exterior and fill it with anko, or red bean paste. The spongy dough is reminiscent more of castella than of a pancake, resulting in a fairly light snack (though blogger YummyIndulgences attests to the existence of custard dorayaki). I was also pleased to find myself biting into chunks of chestnut, which I imagine are a regional or seasonal variation.
There is some debate regarding the origin of the name of the snack, with Taniguchi Takuya, owner of Usagi-ya, a popular Tokyo sweets maker, proposing two theories. In one, dorayaki takes its name from the shape of bronze Chinese dora gongs. In the other, the name derives from the ancient practice of grilling the confection on top of the gong itself.
Regardless of its linguistic origin, dorayaki is commonly associated with two colorful Japanese characters, Doraemon and Benkei. Much like Garfield has his lasagna, the anko/pancake combination is apparently the favorite snack of beloved Japanese manga and anime character, Doraemon. The other connection ties the snack to Benkei, the warrior monk of legend. According to one story, Benkei was once served dorayaki while being tended to by an elderly couple, who used a gong to grill the snack.
|To die for daifuku. Via.|
I’ve heard some people have a phobia of having things stick to the roof of their mouth. Those individuals might want to stay away from daifuku, which requires a good deal of chewing to break down the glutinous (but gluten-free!) exterior. As with dorayaki, love of anko is also a requirement.
Unlike the strawberry daifuku I had purchased before at Dainobu, the selection from Katagiri contained a layer of cream in the center, creating a nice textural balance between the mushy rice dough, the thick red bean paste, and the smooth cream. In fact, it put me in mind of mochi ice cream, which is now available at many supermarkets throughout the country. Apparently, this creation arose through the efforts of Japanese Lotte Co., which released its Yukimi Daifuku mocha ice cream in 1981 to great success. With the company producing familiar varieties like cookies and cream, newcomers to the world of red bean paste and daifuku might want to start their journey here.
|Nom-nom-nom monaka. Via|
At this point in the meal I was holding out for a change from red bean paste. I had picked the last treat at random from the glass display in the hope that the Japanese script-adorned wrapping would fall away to reveal a new flavor. Instead I found… more red bean paste.
The dessert that I later learned is monaka contains anko paste between two mochi wafers. The outside is almost indistinguishable from an ice cream wafer, and, in fact, it seems that some Japanese variations substitute ice cream for the anko. One restaurant has gone against tradition even further by stuffing the wafers with foie gras.
While tasty, the monaka was the least exciting of my three selections, providing neither the soft, pancake-y goodness of dorayaki nor the chewey challenge of daifuku.
With places like Dainobu, Katagiri, and Bermensolo’s own Kyotofu (available at Whole Foods, Dean & Deluca, and elsewhere) bringing an entire tradition of Japanese desserts to New York, geographical distance is no longer an obstacle to the average consumer. Just do yourself a favor when tasting and add some of Japan's non-red bean paste delicacies to the mix.