Thursday, March 24, 2011
Sumo White Bean Cakes
My husband and I are sumo fans from our earliest days in Japan. In fact, that was how he learned a lot of his kanji (Chinese characters), and sumo characters are the ones I best recognize to this day. Though to non-sumo fans of any nationality (Japanese folks included), it may seem odd to find a couple of naked fat guys bumping into each other for about 20 seconds interesting as sport, I can promise you that it's far more sophisticated than it appears. It can't all be about overweight men slamming up against each other and emanating homoerotic undertones...
Actually, I'm not really one for making sumo jokes. In fact, I boycotted the Tokyo Metropolis magazine for nearly a decade for a horrible article on sumo written by someone who talked about "fat faggots" and generally displayed no understanding of the sport whatsoever. In the wake of so many scandals in sumo (fixed bouts or yaocho being the big one), it's hard to feel quite so strongly attached to it. Still, trust me when I say that it was once an incredible experience watching sumo. There were players whose skill and dignity were absolutely awesome, and I hope that one day there will be again.
I have been to Japan's national stadium (kokugikan) in Ryogoku many times to watch sumo bouts, but I haven't gone lately. My husband attended a tournament with some friends and I asked that he bring me back one things, a box of bean cakes. Being the dutiful husband that he is, he delivered. The box comes gift-wrapped, as these are intended mainly as a souvenir that people who attend a day of sumo bring back to share with those who didn't go with them. The box lid has a sumo ring (dohyo) motif and some cut out wrestlers and a referee inside so you can play after you enjoy your bean cake. Since these are souvenirs, there is no nutrition information about them on the box.
The cakes themselves are made by one of the many companies in Japan that have no real presence or image, but acts in the service mainly of providing products for more high profile clients. I've lost the packaging, but I did investigate their web site and they only offer products for sale at the Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, so, if you want these, you'll need to attend a tournament (which I recommend anyway) or ask someone who can attend one to pick you up a box (9 cakes for 2000 yen/$24.76), and, yes, you will want them to buy you one. These are terrific.
There are varieties of sweet bean "jam" in Japan, and the white kinds are finer and usually sweeter than the red ones. The flavor of these cakes quite sweet, but not cloyingly so, with a surprising and well-balanced taste of actual honey. The beans themselves mainly lend an almost fudgey texture and a nice heft, though you can taste them, too. Keep in mind that these beans don't taste like kidney beans, lima beans, etc. They aren't super "beany". So, don't be turned off by the presence of beans.
The outer shell is a soft but flexible cake which has a lovely baked smell. Sometimes white bean cakes are very dry and almost powdery, but there is none of that nonsense with these. I also personally believe these are a very "approachable" bean cake for Western palates. That is to say that the would not be considered too "weird" for fussy eaters who aren't open-minded about what they eat.
I wish I could offer an easier way to get your hands on these than to go to a day of sumo, but some things are pretty specialized. Since both are unique Japanese cultural experiences that I feel are worthwhile, I'd say time any trip to Tokyo such that you can see the sumo, and treat yourself to a box of these delicious cakes.