NIPPONIA No. 40 March 15, 2007


Bon Appetit!   Japanese Culture in the Kitchen

The cute rabbit (usagi) above the entrance to Usagi-ya invites you inside.

Pancakes containing plenty of egg and a sweetener, filled with soft, simmered adzuki beans that are even sweeter... Grilled a golden brown, dora-yaki owe their delectable fragrance to the syrup or honey mixed in with the dough. The light pancakes blend well with the filling, and the result tastes ever so good as soon as you bite in. The sweet flavor, fit for royalty, tempts you to eat more, and when you are done the hunger pangs are gone for some time.

In Tokyo, perhaps the best place to go for dora-yaki is Usagi-ya, a well-established Japanese confectionary manufacturer in the Ueno district. The owner, Taniguchi Takuya, has run the shop for many years. "I don't think anyone knows where dora-yaki were first made. It was around 1927 that our shop began selling dora-yaki made using today's recipe. It's not even clear where the name dora-yaki comes from. Some say it comes from the shape, which is something like the bronze dora gongs developed in China. Others say that in the old days dora-yaki were grilled on top of the gong itself!"

The Ueno district is still in many ways the friendly downtown neighborhood it was years ago. Here you will find old bakeries offering Japanese confectionaries, specialty products like kintsuba (made by grilling a thin wheat dough wrapped around sweet bean paste) and dango (a glutinous rice flour dough that is kneaded, formed into balls, then steamed). The sweet foods made here are generally quite cheap, and they fill you up well. Most have their origins in the Edo period (1603-1867) when ordinary townsfolk developed their own culture. The recipe for dora-yaki was influenced by that vibrant culture, although the pancake-like exterior obviously has Western roots, indicating that it is a more recent addition to the repertoire of Japanese snacks.

In the Kansai region (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and surrounding areas), dora-yaki are called mikasa, named after a mountain in Nara Park in Nara. Mount Mikasa, today a tourist destination, has long been known as an excellent place to view the moon, and the round confectionary featured in this article reminds locals of the full moon above Mount Mikasa.

Today, most dora-yaki are store-bought, but they can be made the same way at home by sandwiching adzuki bean paste between dora-yaki style pancakes. Then you can enjoy them at their best, just off the grill.

Usagi-ya sells them freshly made, still nice and hot. But after a while the outside gets a little hard. "Not a problem," says Taniguchi. "Just heat them in the microwave for five or six seconds, or warm them up a little in a toaster oven. Then they'll taste great again."