Meisanbutsu: Yuzu yubeshi and Sasa dango
In Japan it’s practically required to buy souvenirs for people whenever you venture even slightly far afield. Since most Japanese people travel somewhere over the New Year holidays, the following week in a Japanese office is a veritable paradise of edible goods from across the country, all of which are conveniently wrapped in individual packages and distributed according to hazy rules of obligation. I work at home now, but when I was at my old company the period immediately after New Year always made me think of that Seinfeld episode where Elaine gets used to having treats at work and a blood sugar drop inspires her to sneak into her boss’s office and unknowingly eat a piece of cake from the wedding of King Edward VIII. It is all too easy to expect a bite of something sweet in the afternoon, especially when your desk is full of random treats from across the country.
When people travel, they particularly like to enjoy and buy “meisanbutsu,” which basically means (usually edible) items that a certain area is famous for. Some of these are obvious and known to everybody, like gyōza dumplings in Utsunomiya, apples in Aomori, and kishimen noodles in Nagoya. Some are a bit more arcane like the fantastic koppa mochi (mochi made with sweet potato) my friend Maya passed to me recently that a friend of hers bought in Kumamoto. Of course there are regional foods in America as well (my personal favorite being the mini doughnuts served at the Minnesota State Fair), but just like regional dialects the differences in Japan are far more pronounced probably because they’ve had much longer for these differences to develop. I find meisanbutsu to be quite fascinating, so I thought it would be interesting to introduce some of them as I happen to encounter them. To start this series, here are two types of souvenirs I’ve had in my kitchen lately.
One of the most famous items in my husband’s hometown in Fukushima Prefecture is Mamador, which are tiny cakes that are roughly oval shaped and have a sweet filling. They taste sort of bland and have a truly horrible commercial jingle that goes “Miruku tappuri mama no aji” (“Made with plenty of milk…tastes just like mother”), so rather than giving my money to Mamador I prefer to buy Yubeshi from Kannoya (pictured above) for my friends instead. Yubeshi are Japanese-style sweets made from rice flour, sugar, walnuts, and a hint of soy sauce. They’re covered with a kind of sparkly, crackly starch. This year I was very happy to find that the winter version contained pieces of my beloved yuzu fruit in addition to the crunchy walnuts. As for how many of these I gave away and how many I ate myself, I’ll just leave that up to your imagination.
A friend who recently moved to Niigata brought us some Sasa dango, which are rice flour dumplings filled with sweet bean paste and wrapped in bamboo grass leaves. The dumplings are flavored with yomogi (mugwort) which lends them their characteristically green color, and the bamboo grass imparts a certain aroma that is rather hard to describe. I really like the combination of yomogi and bean paste and enjoyed eating one of these with a cup of strong green tea.