Ingredients, dishes and drinks from Japan by Ad Blankestijn

Thursday, September 26, 2013


Spinach. ホウレンソウ、ほうれん草, 菠薐草 (Spinacia oleracea).

Spinach is an edible flowering plant, with a high nutritional value and rich in iron. Spinach originated in central and southwestern Asia, perhaps ancient Persia, and was brought to East Asia via the Silk Road. It reached China already in the 7th century, where it was called "Persian vegetable," but Japan had to wait for spinach until the 17th c. It is said that the famous warlike daimyo Date Masamune loved spinach.

Spinach today is a favorite vegetable in Japan (Japan is the top third spinach producing country in the world, after China and the U.S.), although the way it is used differs greatly from Western cuisine. It is most popular in a cooked salad (aemono) called horenso no goma-ae, that is: cooked spinach dressed with sesame seed. It is also excellent in o-hitashi, parboiled and soused in dashi with soy sauce and mirin, and served chilled. Besides that, spinach is used in soups.

Horenso no goma-ae (Spinach with sesame dressing)
[Horenso no goma-ae, Cooked spinach salad dressed with sesame]

Thursday, September 5, 2013


Red-Bean Jelly. 水羊羹、みずようかん。

Sweet jelly made of ground red beans. Mizu-Yokan is a firm yet delicate confection that is usually eaten in summer and should be served chilled. It is a variety of Yokan, a traditional tea sweet or wagashi that belongs to the category of namagashi, uncooked sugar confections. Yokan is made with an (sweet red bean (azuki) paste), sugar and kanten (agar-agar). To Mizu-Yokan more water is added than to ordinary Yokan (hence the name) so that it becomes lighter. Various flavorings, such as green tea powder, but also persimmons or chestnuts, can be added.

The Chinese characters used for Yokan are interesting 羊羹: yanggeng means "soup with sheep (meat)," i.e. probably gelatine made from sheep. Presumably that was the ingredient for a Chinese confection that was brought to Japan by Zen monks in the late 12th c. In Japan, the animal gelatin was substituted by azuki beans and wheat flour. The Yokan were initially steamed, but that changed after agar-agar started being used around 1800.

As a refined form of wagashi, Yokan and Mizu-Yokan are popular gift items in Japan. Mizu-Yokan are often sold in aluminium or plastic cups, but one also finds the traditional packaging of inserting it in a piece of hollow bamboo, as in the photo below.

The author Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) wrote about Yokan in his novel Kusamakura ("A Pillow of Grass"): "I saw that the sweets-plate contained some beautiful Yokan. Of all wagashi, Yokan are my favorite. It is not that I especially enjoy eating them, but I consider that their smooth fine texture, and the way in which they become semi-transparent when the light falls on them, makes them indisputably a piece of art."

Mizu Yokan