Many years ago, I read an article about Michel Richard, a French pastry chef who moved to the U.S. in the 1970s and now sits at the helm of a veritable restaurant empire. In the course of his cross country travels, Richard discovered that Americans seemed to be singularly obsessed with all things crispy. More precisely, he noted that there was a premium placed on the textural play between interiors (moist) and exteriors (crunchy), Kentucky Fried Chicken being the prime example of this sort of texture-driven cookery. Indeed, the fast food establishments that increasingly dotted the American landscape were particularly adept at a particular kind of culinary alchemy, which melded a relatively sophisticated understanding of sensory pleasure with mass-market tastes (and, of course, standardized supply chains). It was this discovery, claims Richard, that led him to rethink the way French food was prepared and presented in this country.
Upon moving to Japan, I was similarly struck by the emphasis placed on texture, though in the this case the prized culinary sensations were slippery and gummy rather than crisp and crunchy. The so-called “stamina bowl” – rice topped with nattō, raw egg, grated nagaimo, and sundry sticky ingredients (from okra to mozuku) – represented, at least to my untrained palate, a pure textural abomination. And many Japanese sweets seemed to be merely jaw-achingly chewy systems of sugar delivery. As I ate my way across Japan, regional preferences came into sharper focus, but the love of the sticky, the gooey, and the downright slimy remained. Hard as I tried, my tongue couldn’t seem to get the point of these textures – what is the point of food that slides down one’s throat without the slightest bit of effort, or in a dessert that doesn’t flake, crumble, or crunch between the teeth?
As I’ve come to realize, appreciating these foods requires nothing less than a fundamental realignment of one’s sensory faculties. Of course, texture (or any other culinary sense, for that matter) doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Yet perhaps it is possible to move beyond the holy trifecta of taste, smell, and texture – to hone in on an individual sense, allowing it to subsume all others – and achieve a result akin to enjoyment or satisfaction, if not pure pleasure.
Japanese sweets, in contrast to their crumbly Western peers, are the closest I’ve come to this sensation; they are, in a way, edible exercises in pure texture. For a sweet-toothed foreigner accustomed to flaky pastries and crisp cookies, Japanese pastry – chewy, chunky, starchy – can take some getting used to. In particular, the sweetened, pureed beans that comprise countless wagashi can be both texturally and conceptually challenging. Indeed, the thought of incorporating a vegetable (nay, a legume!) into a sweet dish runs quite counter to the notion of dessert I was raised to relish. Yet the humble bean is capable of so much more than a sweet, bland filling. Candied whole azuki can take on a beautiful, crystallized exterior…
…while cooked into zenzai, they form a delightfully sweet and soggy contrast to crisp grilled rice cakes.
But there is perhaps no higher use of sweet beans – and no better way to enjoy a confluence of peculiar textures – than ichigo daifuku. This delightful concoction consists of only three components (chewy mochi, starchy beans, and juicy strawberries), yet the end result is somehow both densely textured and buoyantly light, intensely sweet and teasingly acidic. And though these sweets may not be crunchy or have the raw appeal of their chocolate-dipped kin, they’re certainly worth discovering and appreciating on their own terms.
Ichigo Daifuku Mochi – いちご大福餅
Rice cakes with strawberries and red bean paste
8 medium strawberries, washed and hulled
160 grams (1/2 cup plus 1/2 tablespoons) smooth red bean paste (koshian), either store-bought or homemade (see recipe below)
Katakuriko (potato starch) or cornstarch, for dusting
100 grams (3/4 cup) mochiko (see picture below)
30 grams (2 tablespoons) sugar
120 ml (1/2 cup) water
Coat each strawberry with a thin layer of red bean paste, using about 1 tablespoon per strawberry. Liberally dust a baking sheet with katakuriko or cornstarch and set aside.
Mix the mochiko and sugar together in a medium microwavable bowl. Gradually add the water and mix well. Cover with a sheet of plastic wrap and microwave for 1 minute. Stir the mixture well with a rubber spatula and microwave for another 30 seconds, repeating until the mixture is sticky and somewhat translucent. (Alternatively, you can steam the mixture for about 10-15 minutes.)
While the mochi is still hot, dump it out onto the starch-dusted baking sheet. Cut the mochi into 8 equal pieces (a bench scraper is useful here). Working quickly, form each piece of mochi into a small round about 3 inches in diameter. Place a bean paste-coated strawberry, tip side down, on top of the round of mochi. Bring the sides over the bottom of the strawberry, pinching to seal. Repeat with the remaining mochi and strawberries. Before storing, dust each rice cake lightly with starch to prevent them from sticking to each other. Store in an airtight container, separated by wax paper, and consume within one day.
Tsubuan – つぶあん / つぶ餡
(Chunky Sweet Red Bean Paste)
Adapted from Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji
1 cup (180 grams) uncooked azuki (small red beans)
1 cup sugar
Wash the beans and place in a large saucepan of water. Bring just to a boil, then drain.
Add 3 cups water to the pan with the beans and simmer over medium heat, covered, until the beans are soft. If the beans look dry, add a little more water as needed. When the beans are done, they should be almost completely dry.
Add the sugar and salt and stir the beans with a wooden spoon over low heat until the mixture is thick and remains quite chunky.
For smooth paste (koshian), pass the cooked, partially mashed beans through a food mill, or puree in a food processor.