Thursday, February 17, 2011

usagi manju (steamed dumpling)

These rabbit-shaped dumplings become especially popular in the Year of the Rabbit, such as this year. I made them with traditional tools and cooking methods. No food processors or microwave ovens appear in this post. I was never as fond of manju (which has the texture of steamed bread or cake), as I am of mochi-type confections, and haven't had much experience making them. But these turned out wonderfully moist and flavorful. So much so that I'm determined to devote more time to manju-making in the future.

Yama-imo (mountain yam) is a central ingredient in the best usagi manju recipes, but my experiments with the most commonly available mountain yam-- naga-imo-- failed because this yam is much too loose and watery for the purpose. I was finally able to get hold of a much denser mountain yam called Tsukune-imo. Tsukune-imo is often packed in sawdust to make it stay fresh longer, and has the shape of a fist. This yam is ground to a paste and combined with joshinko (non-glutinous rice flour) and sugar in a ribbed mortar called suribachi, using a wooden pestle called surikogi.

A common filling for usagi manju is shiro-an (white bean an), perhaps flavored with yuzu zest, or blended with mashed cooked egg yolk for a bright yellow color. But for today's filling, I used what I had on hand, and ended up with a combination of kinako (parched soybean flour) moistened and flavored with ume (usually referred to as Japanese plum, though it is really a kind of apricot) jam and umeboshi (salt-pickled ume). This oblique reference to plum blossoms seemed appropriate for this time of year, as they symbolize the beginning of spring.


Tsukune-imo, cleaned and peeled.............90 grams
Joshinko ....................................................90 grams
Sugar..........................................................90 grams
Kinako .......................................................50 grams
Ume jam............................................50 ~ 80 grams
Large, soft umeboshi.................................1

1. Peel the yam and grate 90 grams of it with a metal grater to give yourself a head start. Then place the grated yam in the ribbed mortar and grind it with the pestle until the yam is a smooth paste. Stirring vigorously with the pestle also helps to fold air into the yam.

2. Add sugar a little at a time and keep grinding and stirring with the pestle. You don't have to use all 50 grams of sugar if you prefer it less sweet.

3. Sift the joshinko and add it to the yam mixture a little at a time, mixing with the pestle until the dough is tender, but firm enough to hold a shape. This is hard work, as the yam gets stiffer and more glutinous the longer you stir it.

4. Divide the yam dough into 8 equal segments and make each segment into a ball. Set aside.

5. Place the kinako in a small mixing bowl. Using a spoon or spatula, mix in a little ume jam and chopped umeboshi (seed removed), adding more jam until the kinako mixture is moist enough to roll into balls that keep their shape. Make 8 balls and set aside.

6. With moistened hands, gently flatten a yam ball on one palm. Place a kinako ball in the center of this and wrap the yam dough around it. Using gentle finger pressure, shape the dumpling in the traditional rabbit shape, as explained in the usagi mochi post. Repeat procedure with the rest of the balls. Simple round manju are perfectly fine too.

7. Put some water to boil in the bottom level of a steamer pot. Place the uncooked manju on little squares of wax paper and place them on a rack above the boiling water so that no manju touches another manju or the boiling water itself. Cover the steamer and cook the manju over medium heat for fifteen minutes.

If, like me, you don't have a steamer, improvise with a regular pot and a metal vegetable steamer.

8. When the manju are done steaming, remove them from the heat and let them cool to room temperature. Add ears and face details with food dye as described in the usagi mochi post.

Note:You can also experiment with shaping the yam dough itself to look like each dumpling has ears and a tail. However, this tends to make the dough thinner in some places than others, and the manju may split in the thin places during steaming. The splitting of the manju (thus revealing the filling) is not a bad thing, and some round manju are made like this on purpose to give them character. But if you want your manju to look like a rabbit, it isn't helpful for the dough to split.


  1. Yummy Yummy Debbie! These look delicious!

  2. I've just found your blog for the first time and I love it! These sweets all look so delicious and you have done a beautiful job at displaying them. I'll being visiting again.

  3. Wow that seems to be loads of work! But am sure it's well worth it! Love the bunnies! ;)

  4. cute usagi! tsukune-imo is an exciting ingredient, though I'm probably out of luck here in boston. ume and kinako is a thoughtful combination, I bet ... thanks for the recipe!

    thanks! john

  5. Thank you all for visiting my blog.

    @Xelia, These steamed manju did take more physical labor than I usually invest in my wagashi. But I liked the results enough to try it again and again, and with new twists. I'll post some of them eventually.

    @John, Fresh Tsukune-imo is hard to find here in Hokkaido too, but I hear you can order a powdered version that works as a substitute for the fresh. I'm going to try to track some down for future use.