If you have lived or traveled around Japan, then you will have undoubtably sampled Japanese wagashi at some point. Usually enjoyed with green tea, wagashi are traditional confectionary that have been an iconic piece of Japanese food culture since the Edo Period (1603-1868). There is a dizzying amount of variety, ranging from Dorayaki to the bewildering world of Mochi, far from the realms of Butter Shortbread and Victoria Sponge Cake found back home.
As I previously explained, Hiroshima is famous for its variation on okonomiyaki. But when it comes to sweet treats, there’s nothing more popular than momiji manju. Every time I board the afternoon train, I can expect to see at least five people carrying bags containing souvenir boxes of them. And if you happen to be a salaryman taking a business trip to Hiroshima, you’ll definitely be expected to bring some back to the office. I usually buy them as a gift when travelling to friends’ houses. It’s a safe option if you’ve no idea what to get.
But taking a step back, manju are a ridiculously common wagashi found everywhere. Each prefecture or even city will have their own variation. Whether that be shape or the colour, you’ll seem them in every souvenir shop, station and tourist hot-spot. For Hiroshima, it’s the shape of the momiji manju’s that is its most distinguishing feature. “Momiji” is the name for the Japanese maple leaf tree which famously and beautifully changes colour during the Autumn period. It’s because of its iconic shape that this sweet has become so popular in Japan.
The momiji manju is believed to have dated back to the latter half of the 19th Century, particularly during the late Meiji Period (1868-1912) . Most information points to Takatsu Tsunesuke as the creator of the confectionary, who took inspiration from the maple trees scattered around the island of Miyajima. Apparently, 1906 has been labelled as the year Takatsu “perfected” his creation.
Traditional recipes use wheat, eggs, sugar and honey to create the castella-like sponge. Like with the majority of Japanese wagashi, the traditional filling is sweet red-bean paste known as anko. Don’t be fooled by it’s chocolate brown appearance. My father and my brother aren’t fans of it and nor are many foreign visitors, so other fillings have become increasingly available; cream cheese, green tea, chocolate and custard. Some companies offer seasonal flavours such as chestnut, orange and sesame, while other stores have decided to add a unique spin to them, either by deep-frying or adding ice cream……..And people say Japan is one of the healthiest countries in the world.