Sunday, July 30, 2006

Rediscovering Wagashi

Part I: Yatsuhashi and Its Many Faces

My parents were both born and raised in Kyoto so whenever I see a new regional Kyoto item pop up, I'm ready to do a little "family" investigation. Most of the time, it's not much of a challenge to find out "what Kitty is doing." As long as its a traditional item, someone will know the answer. However, even established traditions go through changes and adaptions over the years and this can lead to a bit of confusion and mystery - my favorite! At the end of the investigation, there is a pleasant rediscovery or, as in my case, a new appreciation of things I once took for granted.

As the title of this entry suggests, the "slightly adapted" tradition I'm referring to in this case is Wagashi - a japanese style of sweet cake or candy that was originally served as part of the tea ceremony. As a kid, I have to admit, I did NOT like a lot of the various wagashi treats, mainly namagashi or "fresh" mochi cakes filled with anko (a sweet bean paste made from red adzuki beans). The sweetness without a vanilla or chocolate marker to hang onto was strange, like floating in empty space. There also was something about eating sweet beans that kind of freaked me out. Then there were the pressed sugar candies or higashi -- ewww! It was like eating sweet chalk dust. As a five year old I asked myself "Is this some kind of a joke? Where's the chocolate & nuts? Where's the creamy nugat center?" Oy, it was clear. My parents succeeded in making me a good old American gal.

Despite my dislike of namagashi, I did like to watch my mom make things like simple daifukus. There was something about those mochi skins she patted in her hands that really made me want to like them. They looked so delicate and they were warm and so soft to the touch. I loved to look at them before my sister and dad would dig in. The beautiful opaque, velvety mochi skins against the dark anko looked so seductive. Just like the instructions on the package said, they were soft like your earlobe. Something that sensual had to taste like chocolate and caramel, right? After about 10 attempts, I finally realized that anko would always taste like anko.

Then again, traditions adapt and so do palates.


Once again, Regional Japanese Hello Kitty led me on a journey of discovery/rediscovery. Gotochi had released a new mascot called "Kyoto Yatsuhashi." I took a look and initially brushed it off as another recycled mascot. However, since it was a Kyoto item I decided to call home.

Since Yatsuhashi is a traditional Kyoto sweet, my mom knew it, but not the way I was describing the artwork. I kept telling her, "It looks like a half-folded gyoza, right? It's filled with anko, right?" Nope. She told me that Yatsuhashi were the rock-hard cinnamon crackers that my aunt used to send to us. They were quite tasty, but nothing like the mascot I was describing to her over the phone. Those sweets looked more like roofing tiles than gyoza. She said that there was another kind that called "Nama Yatsuhashi" but she said that didn't have any fillings. It was cinnamon-flavored mochi that was rolled out into flat strips and sprinkled it with roasted soybean powder (kinako). Aha, I thought. Now I think I know what Kitty is up to.

I turned to the internet for further "study", finding beautiful images of a nama yatsuhashi that looked like my mom's description as well as the filled versions. While the cross-section images of filled yatsuhashi didn't do much for me, the flat, cinnamon-colored, kinako-flecked version fired off the home fires. All those wasted caramel wishes on daifuku were history. Now it was time to pursue those beautiful, soft mochi skins! Oh, and look! Not all nama yatsuhashi have to be filled with anko!

With this new understanding, I started to look online for recipes for this Kyoto speciality. Since it could be made with or without fillings, I thought this type of namagashi could satisfy my need for a tasty earlobe.

Nama Yatsuhashi: I could leave it as is and eat it all, but in this case I decided to do the folded/filled versions. Potato starch or katakuriko is used sparingly (much like flour) to keep the mochi dough from sticking.

Initial finds on the internet suggested this would be a simple recipe to execute provided that I could find all the ingredients. I knew I'd be visiting my mom in a few days, so I printed up a recipe and headed "home."

Mom was excited to try out the recipe and I had the advantage of her experience with making other namagashi and having actually eaten the "real thing." I thought we'd have a real slam-dunk... of course not. Yes, the recipe itself was simple, but that simplicity meant that things could go wrong quite easily. Simplicity requires perfection because there is no place to hide. No frosting no ganache to cover those occasional oopsies.

A small dollop of anko paste is placed in the middle of the mochi dough - just like you were making gyoza/dumplings.

First problem had to do with amount of water, then there was the issue of "to microwave or to steam," then steaming time and then just-how-much-katakuriko-is-too-much-katakurio issues. In the end, we discovered that the water amounts would have to be eye-balled, microwaving just doesn't cut it, steam a minimum of 20 minutes and a Silpat is a must-have.

Nama Yatsuhashi with Anko: It will probably take me a few more tries before I can really master this recipe or even make it look half as pretty as the pros. Nevertheless, a dusting of kinako does help dress up this delicious treat..

After the 3rd effort, we came up with a nice nama yatsuhashi and yes, the mochi had the texture of an earlobe. My niece loved the bean-filled cakes, while my nephew preferred the plain yatsuhashi. Me? I found that I enjoyed both. I still find the anko too sweet for my liking, but the combination of the textures took me by surprise. I was addicted after the first bite. I also had an insatiable desire to make more Wagashi regardless of whether I would eat it or not. Thanks Kitty...

Stay tuned for Part II: Kyogashi? Konashi and Shiro An!



Blogger prisca_h28 said...

Is it possible that you can share your recipe for Yatsuhashi? My co-worker brought the hard cookie back from Japan and that brought back memories of when I was in Japan more than 10 years ago eating the soft mochi version. I love the taste of it!! Thanks!

11:54 PM  
Blogger Philipp said...

Hi -
I just got back from Kyoto and fell in love with nama-yatsuhashi. Could you please post more details of your recipe (the science) and the process (the art) so I can try making them?

6:51 PM  

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