One of the most traditional of Japanese sweets is dango, a dumpling made from mochiko (rice flour) that pairs well with green tea. Close to Isetan department store in Shinjuku is Oiwake Dango Honpo, historically known for its dango. (Honpo means the original store.) For 530 yen (just over $5), you get tea and a choice of two skewers of dango. I chose one with sweet soy that gives a syrupy, savory flavor not unlike the thick teriyaki glaze you’ll find in the United States. The other is topped with matcha (green tea) paste. The set comes with kombu (kelp) strips to break up the sweet flavors.
Kashiwa mochi is another classic Japanese sweet you might find at stores on many traditional shopping streets. This tender but chewy mochi dumpling comes with a variety of bean paste fillings, and is wrapped in a kashiwa (oak) leaf, making this a seasonal offering for the month of May. At Furuya Koganean in Hatagaya, just a couple of train stops from Shinjuku Station, I tried two (at 189 yen each, or just under $2 each). One is made with yomogi leaves (Japanese mugwort) that impart earthy flavor, aroma, and green color. It’s filled with tsubuan, which is red azuki beans that are partially turned into paste, and partially left intact with skin on for texture. The other, with a pleasant pink color, is filled with misoan: smooth white bean paste flavored with sweetened miso.
White Azuki Bean and Kuzu Jelly
Fans of azuki know that Toraya takes pride in anko (red bean paste), making it as smooth as possible and putting it in macarons, cakes, and many other desserts. There are several Toraya Cafes around, but I visited the shop in Omotesando Hills to try the Soy Milk, White Azuki Bean, and Kuzu Jelly dessert (787 yen, or almost $8). The “pudding” of white azuki beans and soy milk (gelatinized by kuzu, a root starch) hides anko beneath and is surrounded by a brilliantly colorful, rich white chocolate matcha sauce offering a refreshing and delicious contrast between bitter and sweet.
If you want your red bean paste in a fun form, you’ll find it in the classic street food known as taiyaki. In the Ebisu neighborhood I found a specialty shop called Taiyaki Hiiragi which makes nothing but taiyaki for 137 yen apiece (almost $1.50). Taiyaki are anko-filled fish served hot from the grill and popular with young and old alike. You eat them as hot as possible to enjoy the crispy exterior, as well as the warmed up, sweetened bean paste. Biggest decision: whether to bite the head or tail first.
Sweets from Kawagoe
It’s easy to escape the city with a day-trip from Tokyo to Kawagoe, which some call the most Japanese place in Japan because of its Edo period buildings. Kawagoe is also known for its sweet potatoes, so I went to Kurazukuri Honpo to try two sweets, packaged as in this picture.
Kurazukuri Honpo: 5-3 Kubomachi, Kawagoe-shi 350-0055 (map); 049-225-0225
Poku Poku and Ichiban Kura
From Kawagoe, on the left is Poku Poku (90 yen, or almost $1). This take on the traditional Japanese confection known as manju (a bun made from flour) is filled with pureed sweet potato and then dusted with cinnamon sugar before being baked. On the right is Ichiban Kura (170 yen, or almost $2). This sweet is a form of monaka, which is a sandwich of wafers filled with red bean paste. “Kura” is an old-style house, so this sweet is in the shape of the store itself.
Roll Cake is a popular dessert, as the Japanese people love the soft texture and fresh cream. In Isetan department store’s basement food floor, I found Kihachi selling an irresistible version (480 yen, or almost $5). This sponge cake swirled together whipped cream (light and refreshing), matcha cream (delightfully bitter), and kuromitsu cream (with molasses-like flavor that goes so well with matcha). There are also azuki beans (two kinds on top) dispersed throughout the cake.
Kihachi: Isetan Department Store, 3-14-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 160-0022 (map)
Integrating French ingredients and technique is a trademark of many Japanese bakeries. One patisserie with shops in both Paris and Tokyo is Sadaharu Aoki, which like Kihachi is located on the food floor of Isetan. Here I combined cultures in sampling a matcha croissant (334 yen, or over $3).
Inside the Matcha Croissant
Aoki’s matcha croissant is a thing of beauty. The crust is deep golden brown and crackles upon each bite. The inner crumb is feathery with good pull to it. But its most distinguishing characteristic is the captivating green color from the matcha powder. This croissant has a pleasant bit of bitterness from the matcha, and pairs well with both coffee and green tea.
When in Tokyo, it’s always a test to find the most unique food to gift someone or bring home for yourself. Still in Isetan and seeking something both sweet and savory, I was pleased to find chocolate senbei (429 yen, or just over $4) from Aozashi Kariri. I sampled all of the truly savory flavors like shrimp, soy sauce, and curry, but my sweet tooth took control in choosing chocolate. These rice crackers are crisp and with just enough chocolate to make them an addictive treat.