In Japan, many a homesick American is fooled by the rich dark filling found in so many Japanese sweets. Hoping to bite into a delicious milk chocolate-filling, they are mortified to discover…beans.
Azuki beans that is. And although many a wary foreigner will avoid the azuki bean in its multitude of forms and applications, I absolutely adore it.
Azuki beans used in sweets are generally referred to as anko (餡子). Anko is made by cooking azuki beans until they are very soft and then mixing them with sugar and a bit of salt. This mixture is cooked down to a workable consistency which is then incorporated into traditional sweets in a number of ways.
However, like peanut butter in the absence of chocolate, anko just isn’t the same without its traditional counterpart – mochi. Mochi is made with a variety of glutinous rice which, when cooked and mashed thoroughly, acquires an entirely unique texture that compliments anko perfectly. Not too sticky, not to soft, not too chewy…and yet a little bit of each of those combined…mochi is absolutely irresistible.
I have tried mochi and anko, together and on their own, whenever the opportunity has presented itself – from grocery stores to specialty shops to local residents’ homes. Thus far, these are the forms of mochi and anko that I have encountered:
The least-processed form of anko, the azuki beans are simply boiled with sugar.
The most common form of anko used in Japanese sweets – it is put through a sieve to remove the skin of the beans and yield a more uniform texture.
Made from mochi rice, the texture of ohagi is much less smooth than mochi made from rice flour. Ohagi is partially-crushed mochi rice encasing a small dollop of tsubuan. It is often coated with kinako (soy bean powder).
The name ohagi comes from the Japanese bush clover, Hagi, which blooms in the autumn, which is why ohagi is traditionally prepared in the fall.
Botamochi is an inside-out ohagi. Its name derives from the Japanese peony, Botan, which blooms in the Spring, which is when botamochi is prepared. This botamochi was made for me by the local cafe owner’s mother – who heard (through her son, of course) of my azuki obsession and thought she’d treat me to my first homemade Japanese sweet.
A sweet bun filled with anko. Anpan was made for the first time in 1875 by a jobless samurai who was trained as a bread baker to promote Westernization. I enjoy it from the local Cafe, which, ironically is a European bakery…
The cafe owner, discovering my love for all things sweet and beanie, started making ohagipan on the mornings that he knows I’ll be visiting the cafe. Delicious.
Same as anpan but deep fried…so the inner anko is hot and fragrant.
A small mochi dumpling, usually served several to a skewer, made from mochiko (rice flour). What makes dango special are the vast array of toppings they feature – from sesame to miso to green tea…
Azuki bean soup, commonly served with a mochi dumpling. It is made from condensed azuki bean paste. In my area zen-zei is made from a mixture of azuki bean paste and partially crushed beans (to give it a chunkier texture). Eaten primarily in the winter, its warm and sweet qualities make it a perfect cold-weather feel good food. It may be served with a pickle or other salty/sour item to refresh the palate between sweet bites.
A sea bream-shaped cake filled with anko. Almost always served hot and fresh at festivals, taikyaki is one of my favorite ways to eat anko. The batter is typical pancake/waffle batter. It was made for the first time in 1909 in Tokyo and is standard festival food nowadays.
Daifuku means, literally, “great luck”. It is made by encasing a small amount of anko inside a ball of mochi. It may be rolled in a variety of toppings, but goma (sesame seeds) are my favorite.
The mochi in daifuku may also be seasoned, as in yomogi daifuku (蓬大福), which combines mochi and mugwort. This combination is referred to as kusa mochi (草餅).
Being the curious and adventurous homemaker I am, I decided last week that I no longer needed to rely on my local supermarket or neighbours for my anko / mochi fix. I could make them at home! I spoke with a few locals and utilized several online resources to discover that the preparation of mochi and anko is relatively simple, though time consuming. (Note: almost all great things are like this – easy if people just took the time to do it…).
I made my anko with half the recommended amount of sugar, and experimented with two different coatings: toasted sesame seeds and kinako. I gave some away, but ate most of them on my own. Delicious! I will use the recommended amount of sugar next time though…there’s a reason they’re called “sweets”…