Saturday, August 15, 2009


O-Bon or the Bon Festival, which takes place in mid-August, is the time of year when the spirits of deceased ancestors are said to return to their former homes. Young nuclear families depart the urban centers in droves, and head to their ancestral bases in the countryside, where the elders of the extended family tend the Buddhist family altar (butsudan) and the family grave. While many of us may associate the Bon season with Bon-odori dances and paper lanterns, there is a type of wagashi that makes its appearance at this time too.

Bon-gashi (Bon confections), as they are called, are meant to be set in front of, or on, the family altar as an offering to the spirits of the ancestors. When the Bon celebration is over, the living family members eat the sweets. They are very pretty in appearance, and often molded into shapes associated with the afterlife, such as lotus blossoms and lotus leaves. Usually they are of the rakugan family of confections, which are shaped in wooden molds, are very dry, and have a long shelf-life. Rakugan confections are often served as the sweet counterpart to the slightly bitter matcha tea in traditional tea ceremonies. Basic ingredients include rice flour, soy flour, and sugar.

Though I have no use for butsudan offerings, each year I give in to the temptation to buy a box of these pretty sweets. But the truth is, I find them overly sweet and dry. Because I deplore wastefulness, I either force myself to eat them or give them away. Today, as I was flitting about the internet looking at photos of pretty Bon-gashi, I found a page that showed (with diagrams) how to turn one brand of these confections into a drink! I realized then, that I did not fully appreciate the possibilities of bon-gashi, and I plan to rectify this before the next O-Bon comes round.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

my twist on mizu-manju

In the heat of summer, the Japanese prefer to eat food that is both cool to the eyes and cool to the palate. A typical summer wagashi is the mizu-manju (literally "water-dumpling"), which is essentially a small ball of sweet bean paste enclosed in a soft, transparent coating made from arrowroot (kuzu). The delicate sweetness and the smooth, luminous coating, which appears almost liquid, cools the throat and the senses. There are many variations of mizu-manju these days, and I experimented with a version of my own, using powdered gelatin.

It began with my longing to represent our hydrangeas in the form of wagashi. Hydrangeas in Japan most commonly come in shades of blue or purple. But we have a highly unusual hydrangea bush that produces white blossoms. In late summer, the edges of the white blossoms begin to take on a pink tinge. My background in etegami influenced the shape I wanted my wagashi to have. I envisioned lots of pink-tinged squares clustered together around a core of an. This is the result of my first attempt.

basic ingredients for 2 ~4 confections:
sweet bean paste (I used smooth koshi-an), 2 tablespoons.
powdered unflavored gelatin, enough to gel 2 cups liquid.
clear not-overly-sweet liquid (I used a clear, sugar-free, cherry-flavored soft drink), 2 cups.
raspberry jam or any red-colored jam or jelly, 1/2 teaspoon.

Follow gelatin package directions to gel 2 cups liquid, but add up to two teaspoons extra powder for making a stiffer gelatin than usual. Pour the gelatin-liquid mixture into a container large enough to permit it to gel into a sheet about 1/4 inch thick. Chill it in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, shape the an into two large (or four small) balls and chill them too. When the gelatin mixture has solidified, use a sharp knife to make horizontal and vertical cuts and turn it all into small cubes. Toss the cubes with 1/2 teaspoon raspberry jam, so that it is more or less evenly distributed among the cubes. (A little unevenness can be attractive too.)

To make 2 large confections: Place a square of plastic wrap on a flat surface. Fill the center of the wrap with 1/2 of the gelatin cubes. Place a ball of an in the center so that it is surrounded by gelatin cubes. Then pull up the four corners of the plastic wrap and twist at the top so that the gelatin and an are pressed into a tight bundle. Fasten the top of the bundle with a rubber band or twist-tie. Do the same with the remaining half of gelatin cubes and an. Dip the bundles into a bowl of room-temperature water for 30 or more seconds, so that the cubes have a chance to re-adhere to one another. Remove the bundles from the water and chill them in the refrigerator for an hour or more. When ready to serve, cut the rubber band off the bundle and gently separate the plastic wrap from the solidified dumpling.

I was satisfied with the results, especially considering this was my first try. The dumpling was a fair (if abstract) representation of my pink-tinged hydrangea. And more importantly, the confection had an understated sweetness, a smooth slippery texture, and the visual coolness that a summer wagashi must have. I encourage you to try your own variations on this theme.