Japanese Dessert – A Guide to the Sweet Side of Japan
Desserts are a relatively new phenomenon in Japan, but this hasn't diminished the unique and delicious varieties on offer. Take a look for yourself with our guide...
Unlike in the west, in Japan, dessert after a meal is uncommon. Don’t expect to be offered a dessert menu after a meal in a Japanese Restaurant! Indeed, Japan’s introduction to sugar and sweetness is relatively recent. What are classed as Japanese desserts can be a strange taste experience for the uninitiated, often being unsweetened, almost savoury in flavour. Originally, Japanese desserts were merely an extension of the traditional tea ceremony, designed to maximise the flavour of the all important tea.
To help you navigate the strange world of Japanese desserts, we’ve compiled a handy guide, running through everything you’re going to need to know.
This a list of the basic ingredients used in Japanese desserts:
Before sugar, Japan had the azuki bean, still a popular topping or filling for Japanese desserts. Typically used in a sweet paste called anko.
Mochigome is a glutinous variety of Japanese rice that’s particularly sticky. It’s primarily used to produce mochi (rice cakes).
Matcha is a high-quality Japanese green tea powder with a distinctive taste. It’s often used for cake, candies and ice cream flavours in Japan.
Kinako is a roasted soybean flour, commonly used in Japanese dessert. It tastes sweet with a sesame powder aftertaste.
Agar is a jelly made from red algae and used in traditional Japanese desserts. It is white and translucent with little taste and few calories. It is a vegetarian substitute for gelatin in cooking.
Many Japanese desserts include fruits. The Japanese peach, notoriously large and juicy with thin skin and sweet flesh, is particularly common. Other typical fruits include: ume or Japanese apricots known for their unique and sour taste and sometimes pickled, yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit with a bitter taste and cherry blossoms, whose petals and leaves are usually used to provide a sweet taste and colour for mochi, candies and ice cream.
Mochi is a fundamental ingredient of Japanese desserts and very popular. There are numerous varieties of mocha with different fillings and toppings which provide a different taste to each.
Daifuku is a filled mochi, originally called ‘habutai mochi’ (belly thick rice cake) for its filling qualities. The name was changed to Daifuku mochi (great luck rice cake), referencing its reputation as a good luck charm at New Years Festivals. Since the 18th century, Daifuku have been given as a ceremonial gift but are today more common as a simple dessert.
Ichigo Daifuku is a mochi filled with anko and a whole strawberry. A seasonal dessert that’s easiest to find during peak strawberry season from January to March. The dessert originated in the 1980s but the origin story is unclear, several places across the country claiming to be the inventors.
Sakuramochi is mochi flavoured with cherry blossoms, often filled with anko and wrapped in a sakura leaf. Invented in 1717 by a temple guard named Yamamoto Shinroku at Chomei-Ji Temple utilizing sakura leaves from trees planted along the nearby Sumida River, the snack soon became widely popular. Before eating, the sakura fragrance will hit you, a strong but totally natural scent. The sweetness pleasantly contrasts with the saltiness of the preserved leaf; an excellent combination.
Hanabiramochi is a delicate dessert consisting of white mochi wrapped in pink ume blossom, filled with anko or sweet white miso, with a candied gobo root poking out the ends. The delicacy originated from a Heian Period (794-1185) ritual called ‘Ha katame’ ( 歯固め儀式), in which the Hanabiramochi would be carried to the old Imperial Palace in Kyoto on the first days of the New Year, with the aim of bestowing good health and long life upon the Emperor and his family. Ha Katame (歯固め) literally means hardening of the teeth, the reasoning behind the ritual thus that if hard foods were eaten, the teeth would be strengthened. Because of its unique origins, they are still usually eaten as a New Years dessert.
Hishimochi is a mochi of three layers of green, white and pink. Related to the Kagami-mochi that’s enjoyed at New Year, the bottom green layer signifies spring and new life, the white long life and fertility, and the pink is for health and to ward off bad karma. They are traditionally presented to Hinamatsuri dolls as an offering and are also enjoyed as a snack on Girls Day in Japan. They are made in a diamond shape considered lucky and representative of fertility.
Botamochi or Ohagi is a mochi coated in anko that is associated with the Spring and Autumn equinoxes; holidays in Japan where traditionally, time is put aside to visit the graves of ancestors.
Rice cakes and Dessert made with Rice
Dango are chewy Japanese rice balls that are often served on a stick. Originally made at a tea house in Kyoto called Kamo Mitarashi, the name is said to come from the similarity between the dumplings and the bubbles made by the purifying water (mitarashi) from the Shimogamo Shrine entrance. Dango is often served skewered in groups of 5, the top one representing the head, the next two the arms, and the last two the legs. There are different varieties of dango each coming with different toppings and ways of cooking. They taste best grilled with a sweet topping or toasted over an open fire like marshmallows.
Uiro are steam cakes made with rice flour, chewy in consistency and served in seasonal colors using natural flavors such as sakura for a pink, matcha for green, kinako for yellow and anko for red – each representing one of the four seasons. The origin of uiro is debated, with differing theories and folk tales. One of them is that uiro was originally the name of a throat medicine which left a bitter aftertaste, much like the dessert. Uino is best served with green tea.
Manju are varieties of steamed buns inspired by Chinese baking. Most are a bread bun with a sticky texture filled with a sweet paste such as anko. Manjū was derived from a type of mochi in China originally called Mantou. In the 14th Century, a Japanese envoy returning from China brought with him a mantou and the bun soon caught on.
A sweet bun filled with anko. The maker of the first anpan was Yasubei Kimura, a samurai during the Meiji Period. With the dissolution of the samurai classes, Kimura was inspired to become a baker, swapping his sword for a rolling pin.
A melon pan is a round sweet bun, created roughly 50 years ago in Kobe by a bread maker. Originally Melon Pan was football-shaped rather than round, similar to the melons commonly eaten at that time, hence the name Melon Pan. It is made with enriched dough covered in a thin layer of crisp cookie dough, filled with a variety of different flavors: caramel, maple syrup, chocolate, whipped or flavored cream. The best Melon Pan can be find in: Asakusa Kagetudo and Melon Pan Ice stores.
A steamed sweet made with high-quality yams and anko, popular throughout the country. Roughly powdered, non-glutinous rice and sugar combine with the pleasent yam fragrance for a uniquely indulgent eating experience.
Flavored Japanese Ice Cream
Typical Japanese ice cream is made with ingredients such as yuzu, matcha, red bean and cherry blossom.
Kakigori or Shaved ice
Kakigōri is a shaved ice dessert filled with different flavors and ingredients such as syrup, fruits, anko and mochi. It is a simple dessert but highly refreshing; perfect for humid summer days. Kakigori can be found in many urban and suburbs area and often near a beach. The most popular brand is Himitsudo
Suika Ba, literally “watermelon bar”, is a watermelon flavored ice snack with chocolate chips for seeds. They are often available during Japanese Summer Festival as a summers night snack.
Monaka is a traditional Japanese ice cream sandwich with a crispy outer shell and filled with sweet ingredients such as mochi, chestnut paste and anko. Each seller of this popular snack has their own recipe and technique, meaning varities can sometimes differ heavily. Accordingly, fans are always keen to seek out a new type and queues are not uncommon.
Pino is chocolate covered ice-cream first launched in 1976 and popular ever since. They are shaped like “truncated pine cones” and the name even deirves from the Italian for ‘pine’. They come in dozens of flavors but classic vanilla is still the most popular.
Japanese Set Dessert
Anmitsu is a traditional Japanese dessert from the Meiji Era (1868-1912) made from mochi, anko, agar jelly, chestnuts, sweet beans, fruits and boiled peas with a side of sweet black syrup. As Anmitsu is considered a traditional dish it’s common to use a Japanese flavor of ice cream such as green tea. In some cases, a pot of Kinako is served on the side instead of black syrup.
Shiruko is a Japanese dessert soup that is made with crushed mochi and azuki beans. It is a winter dish that is normally served hot with a small salty side item such as umeboshi, Japanese pickles or dried seaweed. Styles vary; some thick and filling, others watery and thin.
Coffee Jelly is a traditional Japanese dessert, often topped with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Japanese coffee jelly was developed during the Taishō period (1912–1926), largely influenced by western tastes, originally appealing to modern young men with a taste for western fashions.
Yokan is a thick Japanese jelly made with agar, anko or white bean paste. Yokan can be sweetened with sugar, honey, brown sugar, or molasses and may contain ingredients such as nuts, fruits, and beans. In some cases, Yokan is made with white bean paste allowing it to be colored with ingredients such as green tea.
Hakuto Jelly is made and packaged to look like a Hakuto peach from Okayama Prefecture. Within Japan, Okayama is well known for peaches and Hakuto is one of the prefecture’s main varieties. Authentic Hakuto Jelly is made with a Hakuto peach and tends to be a little bit expensive as the peach is of high-quality and is itself an expense.
Kuzumochi is a translucent jelly made with kuzu powder. Kuzu is starch from the Japanese arrow-root plant. Kuzumochi isn’t true mochi but is so-called for its mochi-like texture. Kuzumochi has little taste but is considered a cool dessert for summer, often buried in sweet syrup, powder or ice cream. The classic topping for kuzumochi is kinako with a small pot of black sugar.
Japanese Pancake and Cake:
Dorayaki is traditionally two pancakes or two pancake-shaped sponges filled with anko, though now many differents ingredients are use such as chestnuts, whipped cream and ice cream. Legend states that the first Dorayaki were made when a samurai named Benkei forgot his gong when leaving a farmer’s home and the farmer subsequently used the gong to fry pancakes. It is very common at festivals and as street food. You can also enjoy the most popular Dorayaki: Usagiya
Imagawayaki is a thick cross between sponge cake and pancake, traditionally filled with anko. It exists in many varieties including fruit jams, custards and savoury fillings such as meat, potato and curry.
Fish shaped cakes filled with anko derived from the Imagawayaki dessert. Taiyaki is a popular festival food originating from the Meiji-era (1868-1912) word “Tai”, meaning sea bream, an expensive fish also eaten during festivals. The most populare one is from Hiiragi
Sata Andagi is a type of round donut from the Okinawan Islands. They are hard and crispy on the outside and cake-like on the inside and are popular during Japanese Festivals. The origin story involves an embittered Japanese king and a banished samurai, whose mother baked him a gold-filled cake to ensure his well-being. The most popular place to find Sata Andagi is in Okinawa; in Tedako.
Inspired by Western Desserts
A specialty of Nagasaki, the cake was brought to Japan by Portuguese merchants in the 16th century. Around the time of Castella’s introduction, sugar was a rarity in Japan, only obtainable through a trading port in Nagasaki. As a result, Castella was an exclusive snack of the Japanese aristocracy throughout the Edo-era (1603-1868) but became mass-produced towards the Meiji-era (1868-1912). Castella is a light sponge cake with a simple taste, most often sold in long thin boxes or individual packets. The most popular brand is Bunmeido
Mont Blanc is sweetened pureed chestnuts originating from Italy and France. Japanese “Monburan” was created when Mr. Sakota visited Chamonix-Mont-Blanc in 1933. Having tasted a Mont Blanc at Angelina in Paris, he imported the concept back to Japan in the same year and foundd a pastry shop named “Monburan” in Jiyugaoka, Tokyo. Since, it has become an extremely dessert in Japan.
Crepes are traditionally a French dessert but are very popular in Japan. Japanese crepe recipes, compared to the French, are more liquid and have a lighter sweeter taste with fillings such as fruit, whipped cream, chocolate and ice cream. Crepe stands and shops are littered around Japanese cities. The most famous one is Marion Crepe.
Honey Toast is a large piece of toast or caramelized bread with honey topping and butter, vanilla ice cream, honey fruits and other sweet ingredients. Honey Toast is typically sold at cafes in Japan and is often promoted as a way to celebrate a special occasion such as a birthday or to unwind after exams.
Hokkaido Cheese Tart
Hokkaido Cheese Tart is a pastry made with the three different types of cream cheese. Mild Hakodate, full-bodied Betsukai and saltier French cheese is blended to create the ultimate cheese mouse. Created in the Kinotoyo district of Sapporo by Mr.Shintaro who was influenced by the blueberry cheese tarts already on offer in Japan. The reputation of this pastry stems from the high quality of its ingredients and the freshness of the cake. The Best Hookaido cheese tart are from Bake Cheese Tart.
Differing to others countries’ Cheesecakes, the Japanese take on this classic dessert usually doesn’t feature a crust and is not overly sweet. Introduced to Japan in the 1980s, it entered the Japanese national consciousness quickly and gained much popularity through the years. Uncle Tetsu’s Cheesecake is a very popular brand with over 70 stores around the world. There are a lot of famous brand in Japan such as Uncle Tetsu, Rikuro, Pablo Cheesecake and Tokyo Milk Cheese Factory. If you have the chance, try it for yourself!
Where to Buy?
Mochi and traditional rice cakes are really easy to find during your trip in Japan, whereas you are in urbans or countryside area, you will easily find japanese dessert for you to eat or to bring as a souvenirs for your family and friends. How to look for japanese Dessert ?
You can find Traditional Japanese Dessert in:
Any major department store’s confectionery section where many packages are available for offering with beautiful packages.
Many Tea shop provides all sort of mochi to eat with your tea, it will be the perfect time to try a typical japanese activities.
Airport Duty free Shop: in any international Japanese Airport, they had a numerous touristic japanese confectionery shop where you can buy at the last minute your Japanese Dessert. It’s a nice way to avoid overweight from your baggage checking as Duty free aren’t count as a luggage and usually the price are similar or cheaper than Japanese confectionery store when you have to pay taxes.