Mizu-ame, which literally means “water candy”, is a sticky sugar reduction with the viscosity of very thick honey. It is made from glutinous rice, potatoes, or barley, and may be used as a sweetener or glaze in other foods. In this sense, it may be likened to a more natural corn syrup. It is used preferentially in Japanese sweets as the sugar does not crystallize and a silky smooth texture to the tongue can be maintained.
I still have fond memories of when I used to play with this “malt candy” as a child at night markets back home, so imagine how pleasantly surprised I was to find it in Tokyo of all places! In Japan it is usually colorless, while the one I had was more a brownish caramel shade.
In the Meiji era, mizu-ame was a snack to accompany street entertainment like the kamishibai 紙芝居, or picture-story show. It was also eaten sandwiched between senbei 煎餅, or Japanese rice crackers. Now at Japanese festivals known as matsuri 祭り, there are mizu-ame stands where mizu-ame of various colors and fruit fillings sit in a large slab of ice and are served in little wafer shells. These are known as anzu-ame あんず飴, or apricot candy, and was so named because the apricot was commonly used in the past.
In some old towns, there are tin boxes filled with crystal clear, transparent mizu-ame, and a big glob of candy is handed to you on a pair of wooden chopsticks.
So how should it be eaten? Assumedly just as it is? Batsu ばつ！The candy is supposed to be twirled, stretched and pulled out with one stick in each hand. Working and kneading the water candy gives it a chalky hue as it gets aerated. It is ready to eat when it gets translucent and looks like it has tiny bubbles suspended in it. It tends to hold its shape better as well.
Mizu-ame is a simple, delicious snack that reminds me of my childhood and packs a load of fun. I sure hope it gets more prevalent and continues on with tradition!