Monday, May 28, 2012

Tokyo Sumida River Bean Cake

One of the things you get from being outside of a culture and looking in is a perspective on how things seem to be. You get an overview which is not possible when looking from the inside out. Of course, there is also that other perspective, the one people have from being outside and never being inside or only have been so for a short time. That's the one that you get quite often about Japan and Japanese food. People think that perusing the imports at the local store or checking out the catalog at J-Box or other importers gives them a pretty good idea of how Japanese people must snack. The truth is that I think they prefer snacks like the topic of this post (bean cakes) and rice crackers (sembei) to most of the types of things foreign folks fixate on. I think they care far less about the latest weird Pepsi or KitKat than about a wad of bean jam encased in bread or cake and find our fascination with such things peculiar. They know those things don't taste good and are little more than novelties, mere blips in the flavor continuum meant to gather attention with a flash and die away. 

Of course, my blog indicates that the interest level of foreigners in these types of snacks is pretty low. In a Venn diagram of Japanese snacks, there is not so much overlap between what piques Japanese interest in food and what gets my blog hits from those who have the patience to read my prattle. Trust me though when I say that you'll make any Japanese person happier with something from this type of snack than a box of chocolates unless they recognize the name as having a high price tag. Even then, they may not necessarily enjoy eating it as much, but they will definitely appreciate that you spent a wad of bills just to get something with the word "Godiva" emblazoned on it. As an aside, I've had the best luck giving Japanese people See's candy. They tend to like it a bit better because it's not as sweet as other American chocolates. My husband has been known to buy nearly 30 boxes of various sizes to give as gifts to students during visits back home. He had a lot of students, and they often gave him gifts and that was his way of returning the favor. 

Getting back to the subject at hand, my husband and I first encountered these bean cakes at a traditional sweets shop in Kichijoji, home of one of the more popular areas for cherry blossom viewing (Inokashira Park) and a very popular place for middle-aged shoppers. If you go to the Wikipedia page, keep in mind that the picture there is misleading. I didn't even see it look like that during Christmas when lights are often put up. At any rate, we bought this based on being given a sample by the shop attendants so we knew what we were getting. The interior is a slightly powdery, yet still moist, clump of very finely strained white beans sweetened with sugar and margarine. It doesn't have a strong taste, but mainly lends texture as it nearly melts on the tongue and offers sweetness. The outside is a slightly chewy, but also slightly crispy shell which is dusted with cinnamon. The combination of textures and flavors is sublime. 

These reminded us a bit of one of our other heavy favorites in the Japanese bean cake arena, Koganei Imo. The difference is that the cinnamon flavor is more pronounced in these and the interior is a little drier because these are shelf stable and mass produced. They are also greatly more accessible as they are sold at a variety of shops and you can only get Koganei Imo from one generational shop that hand prepares them in Ningyocho. There's a list of the shops that carry these bean cakes here, though if you can't read Japanese at all, you'll have to apply Google's translation to read the names. The shop chain that carries these is called "Chidoriya" and they have shops in department stores and various Japanese-style "malls". 

Before leaving Japan, my husband and I wanted to buy a big box of these to take with us. We returned to Kichijoji two days before leaving only to find that that branch of Chidoriya had disappeared. We decided to track some down in Kita-Senju and picked up a dozen to take back. The expiration date on the box was short, but the truth is that we still have them and are still eating them. They don't seem to lose all that much even though we've had them for about two months now. As you might guess, with something we enjoy this much, we're rationing them and trying to make them last by refrigerating them.

If you go to Japan for a tourist stint or live there, I would strongly recommend tracking these down. At the very least, you can get a sample taste before you buy to see if you like them as much as we do. And if you go and carry some back to the states, bring a box for me, too. I'm pretty sure ours won't hold out a whole lot longer. ;-)

No comments: