On special occasions and ordinary days alike, there’s no shortage of Japanese sweet treats to enjoy.
A mouthful of red bean paste, as a first experience, is rather surprising. Your brain is trying to process the word “bean” and associate it withthis gorgeous, colourful confection you have before you. After the initial sugar shock, the texture of the beans is unlike any other sweet you will encounter—think along the lines of mashed potatoes. The colour is a subdued burgundy, the colour of red wine that has spilled on a white carpet. All in all, it is not an unsatisfying experience.
Through the years, I was able to get past the odd nature of Japanese sweets. I discovered the importance that green tea has when accompanying omanju, or sweet bean cakes. The bitterness of the green tea or matcha, in particular, complements the sweetness of the cake. I learned to appreciate this delicate balance and therefore the essence of omanju.
The thing I appreciated most, however, was the artistry that goes into making each individual cake. Each region often has its own brand of sweet bean cakes. Some incorporate local fruit or even vegetables. Some have a smooth, rice-based outer shell, with a consistency similar to that of noodles. Some have a more Western cake-like outer portion and some have jelly surrounding the sweet bean paste. If you ever have the pleasure of going to a Japanese sweet shop, I’m sure you’ll be impressed. Squeals of “kawaii!” will resound and you will be mesmerized with the detail and beautiful colours.
In spring, during cherry blossom season, pink cherry-blossom-shaped and cherry-blossom- flavoured sweets fill the shelves. In fall, red, yellow and orange maple leaf shapes will be prevalent. Look for cute, peach-shaped or flower-shaped confections. Each one is like a work of art, almost too beautiful to consume. For special occasions, gold leaf will be sprinkled on them to express the celebratory mood.
Of course, each celebration will have a particular type of Japanese sweet to help mark the occasion. For Hinamatsuri, the Japanese Doll Festival, cute, spherical rice cakes coloured in pink, mint green and white and skewered on a stick are traditional treats. To add to this occasion, which was a favourite of mine, you can find puffed, sweet and crunchy rice crackers in cute pastel colours. For Kodomo no Hi, or Children’s Day, people traditionally eat rice cakes with red bean paste in the centre folded inside a steamed oak leaf. The steamed leaf adds a unique fragrance and a slight accent of flavour.
The amazing craftsmanship and artistic detail you will observe when purchasing and consuming these marvellous Japanese traditional sweets will please and amaze you. You’ll also find dedicated attention to detail and quality in Japanese chocolate and snacks. My favourite omiyage, or souvenir, was a gorgeously decorated tin box of fan-shaped chocolates. They were truly beautiful beyond words—but that is a different story. Writing this article has suddenly given me a craving for sweet bean paste … and that calls for a trip to my local Asian supermarket!
SHELLEY SUZUKI is a long-time teacher of English as a Second Language in Canada and Japan. She currently runs an English school via Skype and is pursuing a teaching career, or whatever other interesting opportunities may come her way. She appeared on the Japanese TV show Okusama wa Gaikokujin (My Wife is a Foreigner). She hopes to become a children’s book writer and illustrator when she grows up.