There are a thousand things that I love about Japan, so I decided to take them one at a time. Today I want to talk about food. Some people eat to live and others live to eat, I can’t say I am fully entering the second category but for me a new place means a new food I can taste. I think that food comes with many other roles than the one of fulling up your stomach and providing nutrients and energy to your body. Food brings people together, food creates stories, food gives you emotions and it can connect people faster than any other thing. It is part of what we experience and what we choose to embrace either be it a happy lifestyle or a healthy lifestyle. It’s quite the hard thing choosing which way to go, it’s very risky and it can change you. This is my know-how.
Getting things to the point of choosing between being healthy or being happy when having a meal, and sadly too few people find the middle way, I did. When I was younger I was all about the junkies and how to find ways to get out of the rules and have some pizza while hiding in the corner or drinking a coke where no one can see me. We have all been there and done that. But as I looked in the mirror I was not getting anywhere with those secret escapades of junks. Something needs to be done in such cases. That story continued until I realized I love food and sometimes food gives me emotional power and it gives me confidence and even more when you eat good food you don’t have to worry about where it goes. After a while the trend came in and I thought, why not become a vegetarian, or better said half-vegetarian-once-a-week-meat-eater kind of person, it is satisfying, it makes you feel healthy, it makes you feel like you are doing something good for yourself and for the whole circle of life, but indeed it all lasted until I realized I was loosing what I loved most, trying new foods, yes it’s a hobby, it’s a free time thing, it’s an escapade. So now that I have introduced my food story I’ll continue with a top of the best foods (sweets) I have eaten so far in Japan.
1. Mochi 餅
Mochi is an indispensable ingridient in the Japanese cuisine, it’s basically a sticky rice cake that has thousands of variations. So far I have had countless but I can never taste them all. The most popular filling for this mochi is Anko 餡子 which is a paste made from adzuki beans and is also a customary element in Japanese recipes. So far my favorite is the Anko Goma Mochi 餡子胡麻餅(adzuki paste filling, covered by sticky rice and once again covered in sesame seeds -some variations cover it in sweet mitarashii sauce also). The best I have eaten so far was at a small family-owned cafe that I went in by mistake as I wanted to ask for directions, of course I ended up with an Anko Goma Mochi and a Beni-Imo Mochi 紅芋 (a kind of sweet purple potato that grows mainly in the humid areas of Japan). I was so glad that I didn’t know I was eating smashed purple potato in the beginning, I would probably still be an average traveler not experiencing the true Japan. You can find in the picture the two Mochi on a bamboo plate you rarely find in normal cafes or restaurants. A must eat in Japan!
Who hasn’t heard of this sweet goddess? It is by far the most popular Japanese sweet delight that all the foreigners eat when they visit Japan. We cannot be condemned though, it was the first thing I bought when I came here. I tasted many many kinds of Dango, they are very commercialized and you can find them in every convenience store or supermarket, it’s a daily sweet, a healthy sweet I may say, but I felt like I lived under rock until I tasted the street Dango made by an old man near the Osu Kannon temple. It was blissful. I went in paradise, and looks like by chance I went in the most popular paradise in Nagoya, a man known by the whole city for the Dango he makes in a small shop with a tatmi floor and paper windows. I had the Matcha Dango but not being able to stop myself I had the Mitarashii Dango as well and if I would have stayed a bit longer I would have probably tasted all the flavors he offered. Now to the technical details: this insanely delicious sweet is made of rice powder and water, it has a sticky texture ( though not as sticky as mochi’s ) and is not strongly flavored, but it fills your mouth and the tasteless rice powder becomes warm and chewy and let’s the other pre-added flavors do the job. The flavors can vary from Anko to Mitarashii 御手洗(sweet soy sauce) or Macha 抹茶(green tea powder) or even Goma 胡麻(sesame seeds) and Kuri 栗(chestnut powder). The most popular is the three-colored Dango, the first being colored by the red bean paste or the Sakura 桜 (cherry trees) or rose flavors, the second is colored by eggs remaining white and the third by green tea, it is a traditional symbol of spring that people usually eat during the Hanami 花見 (cherry blossoms festival).
3. Yokan よかん
You never actually taste jelly until you taste Yokan. With that being said Japanese take Jelly desserts at a whole new level so it’s definitely on the top list, no questions asked. This Yokan comes in many variations as well but this is quite impossible to make (at least for my very advanced or in fact slightly average cooking skills). It is a summer dessert that by a true miracle stay cold even at 30+degrees under sunlight, without getting melted for at least one hour, tested. Japanese people have it on a daily basis, and there are many flavors that come from outside Japan, but the true tradition stays in the red bean paste or white bean paste mixed with agar or plums version.
What indeed was scary in Japan was tasting all the weird plants that for example in my country are very undervalued or considered useless. I will state the bracken first as I used to have one in my house as an ornamental plant, it feels extremely weird eating it but it’s actually not bad and found in the Yokan jelly or other types of Japanese jelly. Next I’ll be adding mugwort, what on earth is that, right? Well you probably know it as the weed that grows in your pretty garden near the flowers. It’s not bad either but I still don’t feel the flavor as indispensable in the jelly.
With that being said you might see some unusual uses of some plants or other ingredients but never think twice when trying a new food, it’s better not knowing from the start what it’s made of, this is how I ended up eating the weirdest Japanese foods. As this is getting long I am ending this Top 3 Japanese sweets list and will continue in future posts with the real foods that made my taste buds become very confused.
As unusual in terms of social or moral manners food is much more than we consider it to be, it is part of our lives but don’t make it be just a routine and a step you consider useless in achieving your daily goal. I strongly think we should reconsider how we view food, because this could change us radically, it might actually make us happy.