Today we are going to cook together Manju, traditional Japanese sweets made of a mixture of flour + sugar, stuffed with Azuki bean cream and steamed. From the distinguished sweetness, they are one of the ideal accompaniments of the Japanese tea ceremony.
Some of the cornerstones around which, Japanese food culture revolves around, are the concept of Esthetic beauty and the value given to the seasons.
From architecture, to design up to food, the eye always plays a role of primary importance together with the respect for seasonality, considered the only way we are able to fully experience what the earth has to offer.
These unwritten rules are also apply to traditional Japanese sweets, which are called Wagashi (和 菓子).
Traveling through the main streets of the cities in Japan, you will surely come across shop windows with elegantly decorated and small dessert. They look almost like pieces of art.
Born with the idea of sweetening the palate, while sipping a cup of bitter green tea in the famous Sado (tè ・ Tea Ceremony), these small and delicious desserts have become famous for their attractive beauty and variety.
Their different shape and name (Dorayaki, Mochi, Dango, Monaka ….) show their differents preparation and origin, but what do they have in common? A pleasant sweetness and, in most cases, a huge filling made of the famous red bean cream called Anko.
We have already talked about Wagashi before, but today, I would like to focus on one of the most popular as well as one of our favorites (ideal snack after dinner): ま ん じ ゅ う Manjū!
Manju are small rounded dough, made with a mixture of wheat and rice flour and sugar, stuffed with Azuki cream and steamed.
Their popularity makes them easy to buy anywhere around the country (from Conbini store to luxury Wagashi shop), and the story that precedes them give to their taste more values.
As an important slice of Japanese gastronomy, their origin is inspired by the tradition of the Chinese people, in particular, from the Dim Sum kitchen.
Dim Sum indicates all that category of fried or steamed dishes, stuffed with vegetables and meat, consumed along with tea by the Chinese people. They were born as an ideal afternoon snack for farmers and soon became a quick and comfortable meal consumed by pilgrims during their trips around the country. From a simple snack, they became a real kitchen.
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. In a short time, they achieved great success and spread throughout the Kansai area.
However, since the Japanese religion, at that time, was mainly linked to Buddhism, the fillings were replaced with beans and vegetables and then, with the increasing use of sugar in the daily diet, they stated been cooked as a dessert stuffed with anko beans.
The Manjū can be divided into three main categories, different for preparation and territory of origin
Shiose Souhonke. History said that this was the first Manjū released 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 saw Nara and Kyoto involved, the shop migrated northward to Tokyo where it has survived untill today. What characterizes this Manjū is its light color (Shiro 白 = white) and its delicious Azuki bean filling.
Usukawa Manjū. When the Manjus began to be popular, many cities decided to realize it by designing recipes and ingredients able to rapresent the area. Among these, one of its most famous versions comes from Fukushima, where, in 1852, the Usuwasu Manjū was created. The name describes its characteristic (うすい Usui = thin; か わ ・ Kawa = skin).
A ball of Azuki cream covered with a thin layer of dough made of flour, raw cane sugar and steamed. You will easily recognize it thanks to its golden color.
Ote – Manjū. 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 began to be like a symbol of some cities, such as the Momiji Manju in Hiroshima or Miso Manjū in Gunma prefecture.
But if we want to start from the origins of Manju, these three categories are certainly the most important.
The recipe I propose to you today is a close relative of Usuwawa Manjū, and is called 茶 ま ん じ ゅ ・ Cyamanjū. Its area of origin is the Kansai area and, as indicated by the name (where Cha = tea) is ideally served during the Sado 茶道 (tea ceremony).
50 gr cane sugar
3 tablespoons of water
1/2 tablespoon of yeast
100 grams of flour
200 gr azuki cream
This recipe involves the use of a Bamboo basket for steaming, or any other tool that will allow you to proceed with this technique.
In a pan, add the brown sugar with the 3 tablespoons of water and stir until it is completely dissolved. Cook over low heat, being careful not to burn everything as the sugar easily takes on a bitter taste.
Transfer your syrup into a bowl and let it cool.
In the meantime, form balls with your Azuki cream (I advise you to lightly wet your hands so as to make the work easier and less sticky) and set them aside;
Mix your yeast with a tablespoon of water until it has 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 together to form with your hands a malleable dough.
Make a sausage shape with the dough and divide into 6 parts. As you form them, place the pieces under a damp cloth so that they do not lose their moisture.
With the help of a rolling pin, roll out your small dough pieces to shape thin discs, place the Anko in the center and close them until they form balls. Proceed with the remaining dough.
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 and place it in the pot letting the steam act for 10 – 12 minutes (Do not open the lid during cooking).
Once the time has passed, remove the Bamboo basket from the heat, and, without the lid, let your Manju dough rest for a few minutes.
Eat them freshly made or, if you want to keep them, when they are still warm, wrap them tightly in transparent paper so that they keep the moisture!