All you need to know about Manju – Some of the cornerstones around which Japanese gastronomic culture bases its foundations are the respect of seasonality in the choice of ingredients, together with the concept of beauty.
In Japanese cuisine, sight plays a role of great importance, just like the other senses. Dishes are laid out harmoniously to evoke sensory pleasures even before eating them (with cases where the appearance exceeds the taste).
These unwritten rules also apply to traditional Japanese sweets called wagashi (和 菓 子).
You probably came across elegantly decorated, tiny desserts that resemble pieces of art, walking around the streets of Japan.
Conceived to sweeten the palate while sipping on a cup of bitter green tea during sadō (Japanese tea ceremony), these special treats have become famous for their attractive beauty and delicious taste.
You can find a great variety of them. Each is distinguished by the area of production, seasonality, and ingredients used.
You can check out nerikiri, mushi-yokan, mochi, dango, dorayaki, to list only a few of the different types you can find here in Japan.
In this blog post, I would like to tell you more about one of those delicacies: manju!
Manju, A Dessert Rich In History
Manju is a small rounded dough, made with a mixture of wheat, rice flour, and sugar, stuffed with adzuki paste and steamed.
Their popularity makes them easy to buy anywhere around the country, from Conbini stores to luxury Wagashi shops. The story of this tiny dessert makes it even more special.
Like many Japanese dishes, manju is inspired by the Chinese food culture, and by the Dim Sum kitchen in particular.
Dim Sum is a Chinese-style dish that includes different sorts of fried or steamed dumplings, stuffed with vegetables and meat, and eaten with tea. Originally an ideal afternoon snack for farmers, it soon became a quick and comforting meal consumed by pilgrims during their trips around China.
It was right after a trip to China that a young Japanese merchant decided to open a store dedicated to them in the town of Nara. They quickly achieved great success and spread throughout the Kansai area.
However, since Buddhism was the main religion in Japan at that time, the fillings were replaced with beans and vegetables. Then, with the increasing use of sugar in people’s diets, they started cooking and filling them with anko beans.
The Different Types of Manju
Manju can be divided into three main categories, with different recipes and origins.
Historically, this was the first-ever manju to be sold in a small shop in the town of Nara by a Japanese merchant from China. His success was striking enough to spread rapidly throughout the country. Because of the war that involved Nara and Kyoto, the shop migrated northwards to Tokyo where it survived until today. What characterizes this manju is its light color (shiro 白 = white) and its delicious adzuki bean filling.
When manju started to become popular, many cities decided to make them by designing recipes with ingredients that would represent the area. One of the most famous versions comes from Fukushima, where the Usuwasu Manju was created in 1852. The name describes its characteristics (うすい Usui = thin; か わ ・ Kawa = skin).
It’s a ball of adzuki cream covered with a thin layer of dough made of flour, raw cane sugar, and then steamed. You will easily recognize it thanks to its golden color.
Popular in the Okayama area, it is characterized by a thin (almost transparent) outer surface, made with a mixture of mochi rice flour left to ferment thanks to the action of amazake (residues of enzymatic fermentation of rice during sake production). The result is a ball of anko wrapped in a transparent white layer of mochi with the sweet taste of amazake.
In addition to these three categories, Manju became a symbol in some cities. Hiroshima has its Momiji Manju and Gunma Prefecture has its Miso Manju.
Historically speaking though, these three categories are certainly the most important.
Manju Recipe – How To Make Manju At Home?
They may look complicated, but making manju at home is not difficult at all.
The recipe I’m sharing with you today is a close relative of Usuwawa Manju and is called 茶 ま ん じ ゅ ・ Cyamanju.
Its origin is the Kansai area. As indicated by the Kanji of the name (where 茶 = tea), it is ideally served during sadō 茶道 (tea ceremony).
- 50g of cane sugar
- 3 tablespoons of water
- 1/2 tablespoon of yeast
- 100g of flour
- 200g adzuki paste
(This recipe involves the use of a bamboo basket or any other tool for the steaming process).
Preparation of the dough
In a pan, add the brown sugar with the 3 tablespoons of water. With the help of a spoon and on a low flame, stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. Cook over low heat, making sure not to burn it or it will have a bitter taste.
Transfer your syrup into a bowl and let it cool.
In the meantime, form round balls with your adzuki paste (6 in total). I suggest you do this process with lightly wet hands to prevent the paste from sticking. Once ready, set them aside.
Mix the yeast with a tablespoon of water until melted.
At this point, your syrup will have cooled. Place it in a large bowl and sift the flour on the surface. Add the yeast and mix everything to form a dough that is easy to work with your hands.
Make a sausage shape and divide the dough into 6 parts.
As you cut them, place the pieces under a damp cloth so that they do not lose their moisture.
Shape the Manju
With the help of a rolling pin, roll out the pieces of dough into a circular shape that has the thickness of a CD. Place the anko in the center and close the dough until it forms a ball. Place your balls on kitchen paper and cover them with a damp cloth.
Meanwhile, boil 4 cm of water in a saucepan. Place your manju balls in the bamboo basket, close it, and place them in the pot, letting it steam for 15 minutes (do not open the lid during cooking).
Once ready, remove the bamboo basket from the heat, remove the lid and let your manju dough rest for a few minutes.
Eat your freshly made manju or, if you want to store them, wrap tightly in cling film when they are still warm so that they keep their moisture!
Where To Eat Manju in Tokyo?
If you are a fan of traditional Japanese manju and looking to have some in Tokyo, I suggest you get on the Jr Line towards Tokyo Station. A few steps from the central exit, you will find the “Shiose Sohonke Daimaru Tokyo Store“, the first manju store with more than 600 years of history.
Manju can be bought anywhere and at very affordable prices. You can find them at combini stores at a modest price of 80-90 yen. But if you want to taste the original flavor, I recommend you go to any Wagashi store around the city.
Manju is a great souvenir given as a symbol of gratitude and respect to friends and family. When moving into a new neighborhood, people give them as a present to new neighbors in the hope of creating a good friendship.
Read more blog posts about Japanese Food here.