Everything You Need to Know About the Traditional Japanese Sweet Variations in May!

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  • May can be said to be an eventful month with various festivals and activities going on in Japan. The month kicks off with the Golden Week holiday which includes the Constitution Memorial Day (Kenpou Kinenbi) on 3 May, Greenery Day (Midori no Hi) on 4 May to encourage interaction with nature and be thankful for its presence, and Children’s Day (Kodomo no Hi) on 5 May to respect the character of children and hope for their happiness. Japan also celebrates ‘Tango no Sekku’ (端午の節句) on 5 May which prays for the well-being and healthy growth of boys.

    Carp streamers displayed during Kodomo no Hi on 5 May

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    As part of the ‘Tango no Sekku’ celebrations, carp streamers (koinobori) are hung up and displayed outdoors of which one will be a 5-colour streamer and there will be at least 3 carp streamers as shown in the photo above. Last but not least, there’s Mother’s Day which is celebrated on the second Sunday of the month.

    Satsuki flowers

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    In the old lunar calendar (kyuureki), the month of May is known as satsuki (皐月) which is the Japanese name of the flowering shrub, azalea. However, the term satsuki was written in hiragana at first (さつき) before the Kanji version was adopted much later. There are various theories as to why the month was named as such. The most widely-accepted reason is that satsuki is the abbreviation of sanaetsuki (早苗月) which means the month when rice saplings are planted in the fields.

    Other than this, May is also known by names such as the 5-colour month (iroirozuki 五色月) due to the streamers flown during ‘Tango no Sekku’, the month when you can’t see the month (tsukimizutsuki 月見ず月) because the month coincides with the rainy season, the month of the tangerine (tachibanatsuki 橘月) because that’s when the tangerine flowers bloom.

    On ‘Tango no Sekku’, there are two types of wagashi eaten i.e. the chimaki and kashiwamochi. Read on to find out more about them!

    Kashiwamochi
    Kashiwamochi using kashiwa leaves

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    Kashiwamochi (柏餅) is a wagashi that is made from top-grade rice flour which contains a filling. After the mochi is steamed, it is then covered by an oak leaf (kashiwa) or a symilax china leaf (sarutoriibara) that is folded into two as shown in the photo above.

    For the filling, the usual options are coarse red bean paste (tsubuan) and strained red bean paste (koshian) while the mixed miso and white bean paste filling (misoan 味噌あん) filling is growing in popularity in recent years although it is said not to be available in the Chubu and Kyushu regions.

    Shibamochi using sarutoriibara leaves instead of kashiwa leaves

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    Kashiwamochi is usually used as an offering food for the gods during ‘Tango no Sekku’ and has the auspicious meaning of a prosperous family line which continues perpetually because the old leaves of an oak tree do not fall off until the new sprouts grow. The custom of eating kashiwamochi during the festival started in the Edo period (i.e. present-day Tokyo) and it was only until the reign of Tokugawa Ieharu, the 10th Tokugawa shogun, that this practice spread to the rest of the country. Initially, the filling used in the mochi was a salted bean paste (shioan) so it was only until much later in the late Edo era that the red bean, and miso bean paste versions became more prevalent.

    The name of the wagashi comes from the use of the kashiwa leaf so if other types of leaves are used, they may be labeled with different names such as shibamochi (しばもち), kakaradago (かからだご), omaki (おまき), dango (だんご) or ibaramochi (いばらもち) depending on the locality.

    As for whether to eat the leaf together with the mochi, it is up to your personal preference since there are no rules regarding this. However, do note that there are some wagashi makers which use plastic sheets resembling the kashiwa leaf instead of the real thing so as to manage their production costs. Coupled with the fact that it is difficult to get oak leaves in areas west of the Kinki region because there are few natural oak trees in this part of Japan, it is common to see the sarutoriibara leaves used in the kashiwamochi here. In order to help you differentiate between these two types of kashiwamochi, note that in kashiwamochi, the mochi is wrapped within the kashiwa leaf while the other version will have the mochi sandwiched between two sarutoriibara leaves as shown in the photo above.

    Chimaki: Chinese version (zongzi)

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    Compared to the kashiwamochi, chimaki (ちまき) is strictly speaking, not a Japanese wagashi. This is because the chimaki actually originated from China and the idea only spread to Japan in the Heian era.

    In China, there is a rice dumpling which is known as zongzi. During the Warring States period (475 BC to 221BC), there lived a Chinese poet and minister Qu Yuan from the state of Chu. Upon hearing about the fall of his country’s capital to a rival state, Qu wrote a lengthy poem lamenting this and the misery of his countrymen before jumping into the Miluo River to commit suicide. Legend has it that the villagers tried to save Qu but were too late to do so. To prevent the fishes and evil spirits from eating Qu’s body, they threw rice dumplings into the river which then led to the development of zongzi. Today, the zongzi is a staple item available during the Dragon Boat Festival which falls on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month (i.e. Qu’s death anniversary) and can be found in many Chinese-speaking countries and regions such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia.

    Chimaki: Japanese version

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    If you compare the Chinese zongzi to the Japanese chimaki, there are significant differences in terms of their appearances and ingredients used. First of all, the Chinese zongzi is in a three-dimensional triangular shape while the chimaki is usually shaped like a circular cone. Secondly, bamboo leaves are used to wrap the zongzi while the chimaki uses bamboo leaves, cogon grass or wild rice leaves. Thirdly, the rice grains in the zongzi are still distinct after being steamed while the opposite can be observed in the chimaki. In terms of ingredients, depending on the type and region, there would be savoury items such as meat, chestnuts, sausages, salted duck yolk and mushrooms added to the glutinous rice. On the other hand, the chimaki does not have any filling inside the glutinous rice but can be eaten with items such as kinako powder or sugar syrup with a bit of soy sauce which is used in mitarashi dango. Last but not least, the zongzi uses glutinous rice while the chimaki uses either glutinous rice (mochigome もち米) or non-glutinous rice (uruchimai うるちまい),

    Chimaki got its name because it was wrapped in cogon grass leaves initially before the use of bamboo leaves. The Japanese name for cogon grass is chigaya (チガヤ) and the term for wrapping up is maki (まき) thus giving birth to the term chi-maki. As mentioned above, due to the lack of natural kashiwa leaves in western Japan, the chimaki is more commonly found there as compared to the kashiwamochi. In addition, one key difference between the kashiwamochi and chimaki is that you definitely have to remove the wrapping leaf before eating the mochi for the chimaki while it is an either-or choice for the kashiwamochi.

    In the Honchou Shokkan (本朝食鑑) published in 1697 during the Edo era, it was mentioned that there were four types of chimaki at that time:

    1. Steaming rice and pounding it into a mochi which was wrapped in wild rice leaves before being boiled in water. Sometimes, the juice from gardenia flowers was used to dye the mochi.
    2. Non-glutinous rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaves which were called either goshochimaki (御所粽) or dairichimaki (内裏粽)
    3. Sweet chimaki called anchimaki (飴粽) where the glutinous was wrapped in straw
    4. Boiling the roots of the Camellia sasanqua and using its gray juice to soak the glutinous rice before making it into a mochi to be wrapped in straw which was called Asahina chimaki (朝比奈粽).

    The chimaki made today is said to be mostly based on the second type while the fourth type is said to be closest to the original version of chimaki. Although there is no longer any Asahina chimaki made now, there are variations of the same concept such as the akumaki (あくまき) and konomaki (このまき) in Kagoshima Prefecture and akusasamaki (灰汁笹巻き) in Niigata Prefecture. It is said that this cooking method helps in the preservation of the chimaki and ensures that its taste is maintained at a certain quality.

    How about trying the kashiwamochi or chimaki while you are in Japan this May? Have fun comparing these two wagashi and see which you prefer!

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