Another Side of Japan: Snacks and Sweets
Sweet Tooth Japan
Kurokawa Mitsuhiro and Aoki Sadaharu
Admiring the changing seasons, cherishing the beauty of form, appreciating the taste of individual ingredients—these practices have all contributed to Japan's fabulous culture of sweets. Both traditional and modern sweets are explored here by Kurokawa Mitsuhiro, the owner of a Japanese confectionery established more than 480 years ago, and Aoki Sadaharu, a Japanese chef pâtissier well known in Paris for his creations.
Japanese and Western confections: How are they different?
Kurokawa: In Japan we categorize sweet food into two types: Japanese and Western. Uniquely Japanese ingredients such as adzuki beans and mochi rice dough are used for wagashi (traditional Japanese confections), while ingredients that came originally from the West are used for Western confections. Japan began secluding itself from the rest of the world in the 17th century, but when it opened up again in the later 19th century, Western cultural elements poured in. That's the background behind this categorization.
Aoki: Yes, for example, wagashi use a wide variety of sugars, and in different ways. Western sweets often start with wheat flour, whereas wagashi start with rice.
Kurokawa: I see wagashi as being in a class by themselves because they use only plant ingredients, never animal oil, milk products or gelatin.
Aoki: Another distinguishing feature is that wagashi are often steamed.
French cream puffs have cream custard filling in a soft shell. So I think they have something in common with Japan's monaka, manju and daifuku, all of which have a unique doughy exterior and a filling made of an. France's marron glacés are chestnuts candied in syrup, made with a technique somewhat similar to making an from adzuki beans.
Kurokawa: Wagashi specialize in the art of attracting the five senses. The first of course is taste. The second is visual—they have an attractive, tempting appearance. The third is fragrance, which is more subtle than that of Western sweets, but good in bringing out the flavor of the matcha tea enjoyed during the tea ceremony. (So wagashi should not have a strong aroma.) The fourth is the sense of touch given by their texture. They must be firm enough to cut with a toothpick, soft enough to break into pieces, and somewhat chewy when you bite into them.
As for the fifth sense, hearing: something else that sets wagashi apart from Western confections is their ability to stimulate an imaginative response when we hear their names, which we associate with some scene in nature, or a season. One example would be cherry trees in bloom.
Aoki: Wagashi have other marvelous, even surprising, features that give them world caché. Their fragrances and colors are understated, and their coloring tends toward soft pastels, with highly artistic color arrangements. In contrast, most French confections choose colors that suggest the taste inside. Anyway, I personally think wagashi tend to be better at pleasing the senses.
Japanese ingredients open up new possibilities
Kurokawa: About 10 years ago we launched shops offering fusion confections—wagashi containing some Western elements. For example, a blend of an and chocolate in a cake we call Adzuki and Cacao Fondant. Another example: an paste adapted by our chefs to use like regular jam. I'm convinced we'll see more crossovers, as wagashi and Western confections start using each other's ingredients.
Aoki: One of my clients in Paris told me he wanted confections with a green tea taste, so I made éclairs flavored with green tea powder. That's the trigger that started me on using Japanese ingredients. Now I'll add black sesame, yuzu citrus fruit, roasted green tea and wasabi to some of the things I make, like macaroons and chocolate sweets. I like surprising people in Paris, taking their taste buds in new directions.
Mr. Kurokawa, maybe you remember when you came to Paris and after I gave you macaroons flavored with green tea powder we talked about why the powder is never used in wagashi. What you said rang true to me—the reason is that, traditionally, wagashi are to eat with tea made from green tea powder, during the tea ceremony.
Kurokawa: Today, though, I'd say it would be OK for Japanese confections to contain green tea powder. It is now found in confections in other countries, along with ginger and wasabi, and most likely miso will be included too, before long. Some day, French chefs might see an as a perfectly ordinary ingredient for their confections.
A while back, world-class pastry chef Pierre Hermé wanted to tour our factory to see how an is made. Our workers were surprised and honored by his visit and gave him a big welcome. I'm hoping cross-pollination like this will expand the world of sweet food.
Aoki: Every year in my shops in Paris I use a total of about 500 kilograms of adzuki beans. That's a big jump from the 25 kilograms I was using before.
In Christmas cake I often include adzuki beans, green tea powder, and praline. French pastry chefs who come to Japan tell me they like adzuki beans a lot.