Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Shogoin (Red Bean) Yatsuhashi

Some foods in Japan are familiar to me mainly through my former work and this is definitely one of them. I hadn't seen yatsuhashi for at least 6 years when my husband brought home this box of traditional Japanese sweets. I don't know if families are buying these for themselves and snacking on them, but this is something I personally associate with obligatory souvenirs that salesmen brought back from business trips as a way of saying, "sorry that you're all stuck in this stuffy office while I go out on sales trips and spend half of the time doing tachiyomi instead of actual work".

The gift box, which doesn't tell you much about what the food looks like and that's why I didn't put it at the top of the post.

Though this traditonal Japanese sweet was made by a company called Shogoin, it almost certainly doesn't matter who makes it if you pick up a box. There is a very low chance that it will be appreciably different as long as it is fresh. In fact, one point about this is that it is actually "raw" rice flour dough which resembles chewy mochi and has to be eaten quickly. The packaging says you've got to eat it within three days and keep it refrigerated.

Note that you can buy various cooked versions of yatsuhashi, but it is markedly different in texture and taste. In fact, I didn't even realize that the cooked version was the same basic material as the raw version as this is like a super soft pastry coated in cinnamon and the cooked version (at the top left of the linked page) is like chewing on a hard cinnamon stick. Research for this post educated me about this fact. This is definitely something which I'd strongly recommend in its raw form over the cooked version despite the limited life span on it.

Yatsuhashi is a food associated with  Kyoto, Japan's former capital and magnet for tourists who prefer to think of Japan as a quaint, quiet place full of people who are politely mincing about in kimono and geta rather than the noisy, modern, and rude place it is (at least if you live in Tokyo). My husband was given this box of sweets by a student who returned from a New Year's trip. Our box included both green tea and basic versions, but I'm only reviewing the basic one.* The wrappers sometimes have other flavors added to them including black sesame seeds or even strawberry, but I'd only encountered the plain cinnamon version before. Various fillings, including peach as on offer by Shogoin at the time of this review, are also possible.

Yeah, it's a crappy picture, but the best of three attempts.

These are an interesting experience from a Western palate's point of view. The smattering of red beans in the center is small enough that it doesn't overcome you with beany flavor but is enough to add something more to the mix. The wrapper is like eating raw pie dough in some ways, but with a little more heft and texture as it is slightly chewy but not the least bit stretchy. The main appeal for me is the sweetness coupled with the cinnamon which is so generous as to be actually hot. Note that, this being a souvenir, there is no nutrition information on the box, but the "Calories in Japanese Food" site provides an estimate of about 66 calories per (about 4"/10 cm) sweet.

This is a curious sweet, but I still enjoyed it. I think it is one of those things which can be an acquired taste for those who were not raised around similar Asian sweets. I love the soft yet chewy texture, and the cinnamon flavors, but I think some people may find it all a bit strange. If you come across this in an Asian grocery or while in Japan, I'd say buy a small amount and give it a try, but I wouldn't gamble on a big box if your tastes run more toward traditional Western sweets and their various derivatives.

*I am only reviewing the basic one because I'm giving away the green tea version. This is not because I expect to dislike it, but rather that there are too many of them for my husband and I to eat in the limited time they should be eaten and I'd rather share them with a grateful person than have some of them go to waste. And while the person I'm giving them to would probably take the open package, I think it's better manners to offer a sealed one.


Nat said...

I was in Kyoto a few weeks ago, and Yatsuhashi is definitely very popular. I love the green tea, and the chocolate ones. Great review

Nora said...

One of my (and my mom's) favorites! We always pick up at least one pack whenever we're in Kyoto, usually including a variety of flavors. The cooked ones are almost polar opposites in texture and flavor, but entirely delicious in their own right. Thanks for getting my mouth watering this morning. :9

Roy Berman said...

For a long time I didn't really care for Yatsuhashi, but now I live literally around the corner from the Shogoin district where the bakeries and main stores for BOTH companies (Shogoin Yatsuhashi, named after the district named after the temple, and Nishio, named after the family that owns it) are located and I regularly drop by for the free samples on the counter.

Can't remember last time I even bought any myself, but I'm sure I've more than made up for my freeloading via all the visitors I've sent there to buy souvenir snacks!