Tea and Sweets

Matcha and kinako mochi

Matcha and kinako mochi in Kyoto

The ritualized consumption of matcha (i.e. the Japanese tea ceremony) has intrigued me ever since I first read about the practice in a Japanese art history course I took in college. The professor, Hans Thomsen, was particularly interested in the objects used for the tea ceremony. We learned that the tea ceremony originally had its roots in Buddhist practices, which were themselves imported from China. As a result, elegant and refined Chinese ceramics were long considered de rigueur for the tea ceremony.

In the sixteenth century, tastes began to shift toward a more rustic aesthetic, thanks largely to the influence of a tea master Sen no Rikyu. This new style of bowls, plates, and other utensils were crafted to reflect wabi sabi, the concept that there is beauty in imperfection, incompleteness, and impermanence. (For more on wabi sabi, see this page on Japanese aesthetics.) The rough surfaces, cracked glazes, and uneven colorings of these objects were thought to enhance the experience of drinking tea and raise it to the level of a spiritual exercise. Today, the tea ceremony is still associated with elegant simplicity, understatement, and measured refinement, a testament to Sen no Rikyu’s lasting influence.

In my opinion, the foods that the Japanese commonly consume with green tea also exemplify this aesthetic. As in true in other tea-centric cultures, tea in Japan is often served with something sweet to nibble on, most often some form of wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets). Throughout my time here, I have sampled a dizzying array of these treats, including humble soba manjū (little buckwheat buns filled with red bean paste), gems of chewy mochi surrounded by sweet purple yam paste, chestnuts suspended in yokan (sweet red bean jelly), a whole candied satsumaimo (Japanese sweet potato), delicate flowers sculpted from smooth shiro-an (sweet white beans), and many more.


(Plastic!) dorayaki at Takashimaya department store, Tokyo

While these sweets are undeniably beautiful, they are not flashy in the way some Western cakes and confections can be. In Japanese sweets, the key ingredient is often hidden or enclosed in a more humble medium. As with any present, the pleasure comes from anticipating what’s inside and savoring the process of unwrapping. (At this point, I could launch into a discussion of the Japanese love of packaging, but I’ll save that for another post…)

Chestnut wagashi

Kuri (chestnut) and shiro-an manjū

More Japanese sweets

Shiro-an with monaka (a sweet wafer shell) and kurumi (walnut) pie

Japanese sweets

More plastic “sweets” at Takashimaya Department Store, Tokyo

Despite having access to all these treats, I also enjoy making my own sweets on occasion. With limited kitchen supplies and miniature oven, the recipes I make are fairly simple, but I try to incorporate ingredients that are traditionally used in Japanese sweets. So far, my favorite among these is kinako*, a fine powder made from roasted soybeans. It has a slightly sweet, nutty flavor that goes well with butter, chocolate, vanilla, almonds, and much more. Below you’ll find two recipes I developed that feature kinako. They are great with green tea of any variety, but black tea or coffee taste equally good. A tall glass of cold milk would also be acceptable! Ultimately, they are delicious no matter how you choose to enjoy them.

*Kinako should be available at most Japanese markets, if there’s one in your area. (If you’re in NYC, head to Sunrise Mart on 3rd ave. in the East Village.) Otherwise, Mitsuwa sells several brands of kinako at reasonable prices on their mail-order site. Look for きなこ or きな粉 on the package.

Cookie ingredients

Kinako shortbread ingredients

Cookie dough

Kinako shortbread dough

Kinako Shortbread
Makes 16-20 cookies

I developed this cookie using Alice Medrich’s recipe for buckwheat and cacao nib butter cookies from her book Pure Dessert. They are sophisticated and unusual, and best of all not too sweet. The nuttiness of the kinako pairs marvelously with the browned butter, while the hint of citrus zest brightens everything without being overpowering.

1/4 pound (1 stick) plus one tablespoon butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons kinako
1/3 cup raw or granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon lemon or orange zest
1/8 teaspoon salt (if using unsalted butter)
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. When butter has melted, lower heat and continue cooking until foam subsides and butter emits a rich, nutty smell and is golden brown. When the butter solids have browned (but not burned), remove pan from heat and transfer butter to a large bowl. Chill butter in refrigerator (or freezer, if you’re pressed for time), stirring occasionally, until it is in a solid yet soft state.

In a medium bowl, stir together flour and kinako; set aside. In a small bowl, rub together sugar and orange zest. Beat sugar mixture and salt (if using) into butter until smooth and creamy. Stir in vanilla. Add dry ingredients and mix until just incorporated.

Transfer mixture to a clean work surface and knead gently to form a coherent dough. Form dough into a 12 x 2-inch log, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Cut log into 1/4-inch slices and place 1 1/2 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake until just beginning to color at edges, 10-12 minutes, rotating pan halfway through. Remove pan from oven and place on a rack. Allow cookies to cool on pan before transferring to a storage container.

Kinako banana bread

Black Sesame and Kinako Banana Bread
Makes one small loaf.

The starting point for this recipe was a Saveur recipe called Mom’s Banana Bread. Although I scaled it down to fit my small loaf pan and also cut back on the sugar, it was still delicious. It’s a fairly light bread, moist but not dense, and the subtle flavors of the banana and kinako balance out each other perfectly.

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 heaping tablespoons kinako
1/4 cup toasted black sesame seeds*
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
Scant 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup plus two tablespoons raw or granulated sugar
1/3 cup canola oil
1/4 cup milk
Scant 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
2 very ripe bananas, mashed**

*You can substitute white sesame seeds, but the black ones provide a nice visual and textural contrast. I also happen to think they have a slightly richer, more complex flavor than their pale cousins.
**My bananas were quite small, so if yours are huge, you might only need 1 or 1 1/2.

Grease a small (~6 1/2″ x 3″) loaf pan. Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, kinako, sesame seeds, baking powder, and salt. In a slightly smaller bowl, whisk together sugar, oil, milk, vanilla, egg, and bananas until well combined. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ingredients and whisk gently until just combined. Pour batter into pan and bake in the middle of the oven and bake until golden brown and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, about 20-25 minutes. Let cool in pan on a rack.

Kinako banana bread

3 thoughts on “Tea and Sweets

  1. 初めまして。I’m Taichi, a labmate with Noelle. This is a really cool blog!! And now I really miss Japanese sweats…My grandparents live in Kyoto so I tried almost everything on this photos. I’m also doing a blog in Japanese about my life in Tucson so if you are interested please visit me 🙂 Nice meeting you!


    • Hi Taichi,
      Nice to meet you, too. Thanks for checking out my blog! Glad you like it. \(^ ^)/ Yours is neat also (and reading it will help improve my Japanese!)

  2. Pingback: Kinako and Black Sesame Seed Muffins | Tickled by t.e.a.

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