One of the best ways to experience Japanese culture — and its unique, indigenous flavors — is through a serious sampling of traditional desserts.
From red bean (azuki) to matcha (green tea) and kinako (a sweet-tasting roasted soybean), these typical Japanese ingredients appear in a wide range of confections, many brightly colored to reflect the seasons. They beckon from shop windows and deserve your attention.
But first, a bit of background: When it comes to understanding the history of Japanese sweets, it all begins with mochi, a chewy, sticky rice cake that’s a dessert by itself, but is also used as an ingredient. Sugar was not readily available in Japan until the late 19th century, so other foods were used for their sweet flavors, including kinako, in flour form, that’s either sprinkled on top of treats or mixed into batters. And while Western pastry approaches (flaky crusts and cakes) are more prevalent in Japan than ever before, these more traditional treats tell a novel flavor story.
Start your palate-pleasing tour of Japan with these local favorites:
DAIFUKU A soft, round mochi stuffed with sweet red bean or white bean paste, daifuku are one of the most common desserts in Japan and may be eaten with your hands or a fork (a dusting of confectioners’ sugar or potato starch keeps them from sticking to your hands). There are so many versions of daifuku, depending on the filling. Pastel-green yomogi daifuku, for example, derive their sweet, grassy flavor and verdant color from the yomogi herb. A springtime specialty, ichigo daifuku are mochi filled with sweet red bean paste (anko) and a juicy whole strawberry.
ANMITSU Served cold, anmitsu is another favorite Japanese sweet. It is prepared with many variations, but all of them generally contain anko and agar jelly, a common ingredient in Japanese cuisine derived from red algae. Typically served in a bowl, anmitsu consists of cold gelatin cubes topped with fruits, chewy rice flour dumplings called dango, anko, ice cream and mitsu, a dark brown-colored, sugary syrup.
DORAYAKI This delectable sweet is essentially a sandwich made with fluffy sponge cake pancakes and anko in the middle. Ice cream, chestnuts and whipped cream may also be tucked inside. Fun fact: A popular Japanese manga character named Doraemon loves these confections and generally gobbles them up by the plateful.