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Asian Desserts: The Tastes and Textures of Japanese and Chinese Sweets - January 2007 Newsletter

A Cake and cookies. Cinnamon rolls and ice cream. America's cupboards and freezers are filled with goodies in every variety. But what wonders would we find in an Asian cupboard? While we know about noodles and fish, we rarely hear about Chinese or Japanese desserts. This may be because there is not such a focus on sweets in the Asian cultures, nor is dinner always followed by dessert. Furthermore, desserts in Asia are usually centered around fruit, rather than chocolate or dairy. That does not mean, however, that there are no good Asian goodies. The Japanese are well known for their red bean (azuki) cakes, and Chinese moon cakes are famous world wide.

Japan: The Japanese do not traditionally have dessert after a meal. If anything, they may finish their meal with a bit of fruit. Instead, desserts are often served with tea. Many Japanese sweets are seasonal, based on what is ripe or what festival is taking place. The Japanese rarely use dairy in their desserts. Because they are made largely from grains, rice, and fruit, they tend to be healthier than the sugar filled sweets of the west.

A type of sweet that has been served at tea ceremonies since the 16th century; wagashi (meaning Japanese confections) is made primarily from grains and rice common to the Japanese diet. Besides being tasty, they are also rich in fiber. The ingredients in Wagashi include azuki beans and kanten, a jelly made from seaweed. Along with glutinous rice, sweet potatoes, and sugar, these are the most common ingredients in Japanese desserts. Wagashi come in a wide variety of colors, flavors, and shapes, reflecting Japanese culture and the natural world. There are several kinds of wagashi, including Namagashi, a hand-crafted seasonal cake, Yokan, a jellied sweet made from bean paste and sugar, Manju, a steamed bun made of flour or yam that is filled with bean paste, and higashi, a solid, dry treat formed in a mold. The creation of wagashi has become an art form in itself. The bright colored treats are handcrafted into intricate shapes and designs, including flowers, leaves, and fish.

Besides these artful confections, Japan has a number of other tasty treats centered around red bean, or azuki paste. In the popular Dora Yaki (sweet pancakes), found at many street booths, this paste is sandwiched between two small pancakes. Dora Yaki is Japanese for gong, as the round shaped pancakes resemble the shape of a gong. Sometimes, only one pancake is used and folded over. Obanyaki, made from egg, flour and sugar, are also filled with bean paste. Obanyaki are made in special pans that imprint the cakes with designs inspired by the gold coins introduced to Japan in the fourteenth century. Ohagi, a sticky rice cake wrapped in the sweet bean paste, is another favorite. It is often served at birthdays and festivals.

Today, with the rise of globalization, the Japanese have begun catering to western tastes and serving dessert in their restaurants. One of the most common is green tea ice cream, flavored with maccha, the powdered tea used in the Japanese tea ceremony.

China: The Chinese view of sweets is similar to that of the Japanese. They have their sweets with tea, or in between courses to cleanse the palate, rather than a dessert at the end of the meal. Like the Japanese, they prefer to serve fruit for dessert and to have sweets that are lower in fat and sugar. Unlike the Japanese, the Chinese are more likely to use flour and eggs in their desserts. Cakes were introduced into ancient China by Westerners, and adapted to Chinese tastes. Therefore, Chinese cakes are steamed, rather than baked. They often include lard, as well as rice and vegetables. Other common ingredients include red beans, lotus seeds, dates, and sesame seeds, which are made into pastes and used as fillings, along with nuts and seeds. They even use apricot kernels and watermelon seeds.

The first Chinese cakes were made out of honey and maltose, which is a malt sugar derived from barley. Sugar was not available in China until the seventh century, when the technique of refining sugar was introduced by India. They used this technique to make a powdered sugar called sugar frost, which is still used today.

Many Chinese sweets are connected to a specific festival or custom. Perhaps the most famous are moon cakes, served during the Moon, or Mid-Autumn, Festival. The reason for their appeal is not only their delicious taste; moon cakes also played a pivotal role in Chinese history. Secret messages in the moon cakes helped the Chinese successfully overthrow Mongolian rule in 1368, leading to the rise of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Moon cakes come in both sweet and savory varieties, with fillings ranging from red bean paste and lotus seed paste to duck egg yolk and pork. While most are round, to mirror the image of the moon, cakes are also formed to look like rabbits, fish, or pagodas. The cakes usually have a golden brown crust, but are also sometimes died red, green, brown, or even gold.

Beyond moon cakes, the Chinese have a number of other traditional treats that are served at a specific time of year or during a particular celebration. Chinese New Year means it is time for sweet rice balls in white and red. Birthdays call for longevity peach buns, in order to guarantee you will have many more birthdays to follow. During the Dragon Boat Festival, zong zi, sweet rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves, are served. Milk cakes are the treat of choice at the Festival of the Dead, and Buddhist celebrations often involve sweet cakes.

Desserts also vary by region. Cantonese sweets tend to be oilier and higher in sugar than sweets from other regions. They are more influenced by Western tastes, and are more likely to include dairy products. Jiang-Zhe style desserts, from the region near Shanghai, are more traditional; most include red-beans, sesame or prunes. Sweet lovers in Beijing prefer different treats at different times of the year. While in spring they may enjoy rice or pea cake, in summer it is cool desserts, such as almond jelly and Chinese yogurt, that are preferred.

Now that you are familiar with Japanese and Chinese sweets, give them a try. Head down to your local Chinatown or Japantown and pick up an azuki bean cake or moon cake. Or, better yet, make one yourself! Mrs. Lin's Kitchen has a variety of Asian cookbooks, and even carries Obanyaki pans. For a head start, try one of our recipes below:

Sweet Pancakes

(Makes 6-8 dora yaki pancakes)

Pancakes

5 tbsp caster (superfine) sugar
3 large eggs, beaten
1 tbsp maple syrup or light corn syrup
1 2/3 cups all purpose flour, sifted
1 tsp baking soda
2/3 cup water
Vegetable oil, for frying

Sweet Bean Paste

9 oz. canned azuki beans
3 tbsp caster sugar
Pinch of salt

1. To make the bean paste, put the whole can of azuki beans in a pan over medium heat. Add sugar gradually and stir vigorously. Cook over low heat until the liquid has evaporated and the beans are mushy. Add salt and remove from heat.

2. Mix sugar, eggs, and syrup in a mixing bowl. Blend well. Add flour and stir until smooth. Cover for 20 minutes.

3. Mix together baking soda and water and add to batter

4. Heat oil in a small pan. Spread oil with kitchen paper. Ladle batter into the center of the pan. Make a small pancake about 5 inches in diameter and ¼ of an inch thick.

5. Cook for 2-3 minutes on each side until each side is golden brown. Adjust heat if necessary. Make a further 11-15 pancakes.

6. Take one pancake and spread about 2 tbsp of bean paste in the middle. Leave about 1 inch around the edge. Cover with another pancake. Place on a tray and repeat till all pancakes are used. Serve the filled pancakes warm or cold.

Moon Cakes
(Makes 24 moon cakes)

Crust

4 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup dried milk powder
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
3 large eggs
1 ¼ cups sugar
¾ cup butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
1 ½ tsp vanilla

Filling

1 cup chopped pitted dates
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans
1 cup apricot preserves
½ cup sweetened flaked coconut
½ cup raisins

Glaze

1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 tbsp water

1. For the crust, sift together the flour, dried milk powder, baking powder, and salt. Mix eggs in a separate bowl. Add sugar and beat until the mixture “ribbons” off the beaters, about 5 minutes. Add the melted butter, vanilla, and sifted dry ingredients, folding after each addition. Mix to a rough dough, then knead on a lightly floured surface until smooth. Form the dough into a long, snake-like roll, and cut into 24 pieces.

2. Mix together the filling, and stir to combine evenly. Divide into 24 portions.

3. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly grease 2 baking sheets. Using your fingers, press each dough piece into a 3-inch circle with the edges thinner and the center thicker. Place a portion of the filling, and a pinch to seal. Roll the cake into a ball, and flatten it to a 3-inch round. Carve a crisscross design on top. Arrange the cakes about 1 inch apart on the baking sheets. Brush the surface with the glaze. Bake the cakes for about 30 minutes, until golden brown. Cool on a rack, and serve

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Asian Desserts: The Tastes and Textures of Japanese and Chinese Sweets

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