Japanese Pastries: Red Beans and Rice

While Japan has a plethora of “Western-style” bakeries in which you’ll find the typical cakes, cookies, cupcakes, éclairs and other pastries you’re used to finding in North America or Europe, no trip to Japan is complete without sampling the classic sweets that are uniquely Japanese. Like in the West, chocolate is a popular filling for modern Japanese sweets, but for the classics, don’t be surprised to find fillings made from ingredients like red beans and rice.

No, Japanese pastries are not filled with actual chunky beans and rice. Anko is a word you’ll often see when ordering Japanese pastries. It refers to a red bean (azuki) paste that’s mildly sweet and has been the main ingredient of Japanese pastries long before things like chocolate made their way to Japan.

Anko is a popular fillings in classic Japanese pastries such as taiyaki (a fish-shaped cake—and no, it doesn’t taste anything like fish), manju (a steamed bun based on an ancient Chinese dish—read more here), dorayaki (a pancake-like pastry with filling), and shiritama (dumplings).

Rice isn’t usually a filling but a sweet in and of itself. By fermenting the rice, Japanese pastry-makers can get the rice into a sweet, gelatinous consistency like that in mochi (rice cake), daifuku (sweet rice cake), and shiruko (a soup made of sweet rice cake).

One popular classic Japanese pastry is anpan. Anpan is literally a sweet bread filled with a sweet filling that dates back to the late 1800s. Typical classic fillings include anko, pickled cherry blossoms, chestnut jam, white bean jam, and green pea jam and modern fillings include chocolate cream, custard, fruit-flavored cream and cream cheese. While it sounds like enough to send anyone running to the dentist, the Japanese version of “sweet” is quite different than you may be used to in the West. Even Western-style cakes in Japan are mildly sweet. Japanese-made pastries are delicious without being cringe-worthy sweet. You won’t find yourself scraping off frosting to avoid getting cavities.

If you’re ever in Tokyo, consider taking the train about an hour outside of the city to Saitama’s Kashiya Yokocho (“Confectioners’ Alley”). This classic-style alley of mom-and-pop-style homemade pastry and candy stores is made to elicit the feelings of 1950s Japan. The popular ingredient for pastries there are sweet potatoes. You can find sweet potato anpan, ice cream, chips, coffee and even beer.

The mild sweetness of Japanese sweets can truly only be tasted to be understood, so track down the nearest Japanese style bakery and give it a try. One popular chain of Japanese supermarkets in the US is Mitsuwa, which has one location in New Jersey (only a 20-minute shuttle ride from Manhattan), one outside of Chicago, and six in California.

What’s your favorite Japanese pastry? What’s the best Japanese pastry filling?

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Tags: Food, Pastries, Red Beans, Rice