So I have been in Japan for a while now and I have sampled a variety of traditional Japanese dishes. It seems like every region has its own type of food and its own special way of making it. This is especially true for Japanese sweets. Here are just a few of my favorites that I highly recommend you try on your trip to Japan.
Something to note: Red bean paste
Probably the most important ingredient in a lot of Japanese desserts. It is made by boiling and mashing Azuki beans with a little sugar. It kind of tastes a bit like sweet potato but a little earthier and sweeter.
Dango is small, slightly sweetened rice balls on a skewer and are eaten all year round. The flavor is usually seasonal but the most popular is a simple soy sauce topping (or occasionally a matcha glaze in areas like Kyoto). They can frequently be found around shrines, temples, and festivals, with street vendors selling these freshly flamed snacks on a skewer. Their rich and chewy nature means they are a satisfying snack and in my opinion, the epitome of a traditional Japanese dessert.
Taiyaki is made with waffle batter and shaped into a fish with all kinds of fillings. Cheese, custard, red bean paste, chocolate. You can find Taiyaki all over Japan but it’s best to eat it still hot and fresh from the grill from areas like Asakusa and Nihonbashiningyocho.
Shaved Ice – KAKIGORI
The first time I heard of shaved ice I initially thought “oh ice cream?” But no it isn’t. It’s actually a delicious seasonal shaved ice dessert, flavored with your choice of sauces, filling, toppings, etc. Despite the name which suggests a lack of intensity, it is actually bursting with flavor! Depending on where you try it in Japan, your experience will be different. Typically in Tokyo, you will find fluffy, thinly shaven ice topped with unique or traditional flavors like matcha, brown sugar, strawberry, and condensed milk, or a star ingredient like red bean. Elsewhere in Japan, you might be surprised to find all the flavor at the bottom! No matter where you go, however, it is the quintessential summer dessert guaranteed to keep you cool during the scorchingly hot Japanese summers.
Much like Dango, Daifuku is also made using glutinous rice. However, Daifuku is made using rice flour and is folded and beaten until sticky and then formed into palm-sized balls. These balls are then stuffed with your choice of filling and coated with flavoring and cornstarch to stop them from sticking to each other. They are usually filled with red bean paste but they come in many varieties.
Fun Fact! between 2006-2009 eighteen people died from eating Daifuku. some people find the sticky cake just too hard to swallow.
Anmitsu is a bowl of agar jelly cubes, red bean paste, Gyūhi (which is a softer kind of mochi) and a varying combination of fruits that results in an interesting mix of textures and flavors unique to Japan. Anmitsu is a seasonal dish and is usually enjoyed during warm weather. However, you can usually find it in most Japanese restaurants all year round.
So yes KitKats are not specifically Japanese sweets. However, KitKat is arguably the most popular chocolate bar in Japan by far! It was first made in the UK in the 1930s and I had only ever had two different flavors in my entire life: milk chocolate, and dark chocolate. That is of course until my taste buds got a sudden awakening in the land of the rising sun!
In Japan, there is a new flavor every month! Lemon and sea salt, strawberry, matcha, wasabi, rum and raisin, mixed berry, ginger ale, soy sauce, sake, the list goes on, and on, and on! In fact, since the year 2000, there have been over 300 flavors and counting. It’s seen as a good luck gift typically given to kids for when exam season comes around and it’s an especially popular omiyage (souvenir) to take back to your home country.