Today's post is about a couple of Japanese desserts that I've had. I could be a bit lame and include things like, say, green tea flavored ice cream, but I won't. Instead I'll go with some more authentic ones.
I'll start with a brief aside about the azuki bean. This bean is ancient, as it's evidently been cultivated in East Asia for about 6,000 years. It's fairly nutritious, too, having significant amounts of B vitamins, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc, along with the usual bean high amount of protein. Why am I going on about beans in a post about desserts, you may ask? Because azuki beans, made into a red bean paste, and often flavored with sugar, are a very common ingredient in Japanese desserts, including the ones I'll be talking about. This might sound a little weird to Westerners (at least it did to me the first time I heard it), but it works out pretty well.
First up is yokan. I first had this at a friend's house several years ago (Hi Jackie!). Yokan is usually made from our friend azuki, but sometimes from a white kidney bean paste. Some types are colored and flavored with green tea powder. According to what I read, this dessert was actually invented by the Chinese, and introduced to Japan in about 1191 A.D. The original recipe was made of gelatin derived from boiled sheep (their hoofs, I presume). Buddists changed the recipe to non-animal products--wheat flour and azuki. Then by about the year 1800 agar was used instead of the wheat. Currently, sugar is usually added to the red bean paste and agar. Anyway, the kind I had (can't remember the manufacturer, alas) looked like red and green gel rectangles, which were broken into small (like an inch by a half inch) blocks. So apparently I had the red bean paste (azuki) type, and the same flavored with the green tea. The texture was firmer than gelatin. They were good--not extremely sweet, but enough to qualify as a dessert type treat. I would certainly try these again with pleasure.
The second dessert is mystery. Another friend (Hi Dave!) gave me this one, which came from a friend of his who'd recently been to Japan. Unfortunately, we weren't told the company name or the food's name, and I can't read Japanese. So I'll have to just describe it, and show the photos of it, which are courtesy of Dave again.
The actual cakes themselves were about 2 inches by 2 inches. One was shaped like a human (?) figure and another was shaped like a horse, complete with a saddle and reins shaped into it. The outer coating was reminiscent of sponge cake, while the filling was red bean paste again. As with the yokan it was less sweet as a dessert than I'm used to, but still tasty. Don't know if/when I'll get a chance to try it again, but I would--it's a definite recommend. Further attempts to discover what I'd had exactly were inconclusive. Manju is described as a flour, rice powder, and buckwheat pastry filled with azuki. Daifuku is listed as being a glutinous rice cake stuffed with sweetened red bean paste. Taiyaki is a fish shaped cake filled with either red bean paste, cheese or custard. Even something called a mooncake seemed like a remote possibility. So I'm guessing my dessert was a variant of one of these, but I can't say for sure. I'll try to find out more. If any reader can help out, I'd appreciate it.
(Update) Evidently these are called Haniwa cakes, and they're shaped like some famous Haniwa terracotta clay figurines, which date from 200 to 500 A.D.