As we are now in the middle of the last month of the year, let’s find out more about December which is known as shiwasu (師走) in the calendar (kyuureki) and the signature wagashi eaten during this period!
Although the word shiwasu refers to December in the kyuureki, the period covered by this term is actually from the end of December to the beginning of February of the following year. Looking at the kanji characters, the literal meaning of this term is that a master/teacher is running around as he is busy with something. According to the Iroha Jiruisho (色葉字類抄 or 伊呂波字類抄), a Japanese kanji dictionary published at the end of the Heian period in the 12th century, the meaning of shiwasu is explained as the Buddhist monks being very busy during the last month of the year as they are engaged by families to go to their homes for the offering of prayers in front of their Buddhist altars thus having to travel to many places.
During shiwasu, the signature wagashi to eat is the maruyubeshi (柚餅子). Depending on the location, maruyubeshi can take on different forms and can be made in various ways. The history of this wagashi goes back as far as the Genpei War (源平合戦) between the Taira (平) and Minamoto (源) clans during the late Heian period of Japan (1180 to 1185). The war which was also known as Jisho Juei no Ran (治承寿永の乱) resulted in the fall of the Taira clan and the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate under Minamoto Yoritomo in 1192. At that time, maruyubeshi was not made for the intention of being a wagashi but rather a food item which could be preserved for a long time and taken anywhere for consumption. It only became famous and popular after Wajimanuri traders from Wajima City, Ishikawa Prefecture, brought the maruyubeshi to their customers as souvenirs.
Yuzu with its flesh removed and filled with the mochi
To make the maruyubeshi, there are many steps involved and therefore, resulting in this being something which can only be made once a year. Generally, the process begins in autumn when the yuzu is harvested. The bigger yuzus are selected where the flesh is removed and the skin which is translucent when held against a light source is then used for the production of the maruyubeshi.
Maruyubeshi placed in the steamer
The yuzu skins are then stuffed with a mixture of mochi rice flour, yuzu peel, and sugar and steamed multiple times before they are left to dry naturally. As such, the entire process takes as long as six months.
Maruyubeshi after being steamed
The end product is a unique blend of the sweetness and bitterness from the yuzu and mochi, thus making it especially popular among people who are not too keen on wagashi in general as they may be too sweet for them.
There are a number of ways you can enjoy the maruyubeshi. The most common way would be to cut it thinly and have it with tea or beer as an accompanying snack. However, as Nakauraya (中浦屋), a wagashi maker from Wajima City, Ishikawa Prefecture (石川県輪島市), suggests on its website, another way would be to cut the maruyubeshi into thin strips and use it in dishes such as chawanmushi or clear soups or even Western cuisine. The sealed-in flavors and freshness of the yuzu would be ideal in accentuating the taste of your dishes. Last but not least, you can cut the maruyubeshi into smaller pieces and grill them slightly over a charcoal fire to bring out the flavors, making it softer to eat. According to Nakauraya, this is their No.1 recommended method to enjoy the maruyubeshi. The website also provides pictures showing the correct way of cutting the maruyubeshi so do check it out if you are unsure of how to do it.
So, how about enjoying some ‘citrusy’ goodness in the month of shiwasu as we count down to the end of 2015 and welcome a new year ahead?
Nakauraya Website*Japanese Only