With the arrival of June, this marks the beginning of summer as temperatures climb higher and the sun sets later in the day. In the kyuureki (the Japanese lunar calendar), the month of June is called Minazuki (水無月) which means the month with no water. As to why this is so, it is said that there are two theories. First of all, with the end of the rainy season, this means that there will be “no rain” thus there will be “no water”. Another theory has it that in this month, the water in the paddy fields are drained after the seedlings are planted.
In Japan, the pyramid hydrangeas (ajisai in Japanese) is also known by the name minazuki which has the flower meaning of capriciousness. Despite its name being the same as June’s name in the kyuureki, the minazuki is actually the birthday flower for 25 August. It is believed that the flower got its name because it blooms from June in the kyuureki (July in the Western calendar) until September. The minazuki has a light cream colour and does not bear fruit. Do keep a lookout for this flower if you happen to be in Japan during this period.
In this month, the signature wagashi to eat would have to be the minazuki (水無月) which is regarded as a nagoshiharae (夏越祓) to ward off bad luck in summer. On the first day of the minazuki month, which is around 30 June in the Western calendar, this is regarded as the day when the first half of the year ends. In a bid to brush off the sins and bad luck accumulated so far in the year, people eat the minazuki to pray for peace and good luck in the second half of the year. It is believed that if one does the nagoshiharae ritual, it will bring longevity to the person as well.
The custom of eating minazuki as a nagoshiharae food is said to have originated in the Heian era when the aristocrats were given ice by the Imperial Palace on the first day of Minazuki as part of the Himuro no Sekku (The Ice Room seasonal festival; 氷室の節句) ceremony. This was said to be effective in preventing contagious diseases in the summer. However, as ice was something which the commoners had no way of obtaining, they resorted to making the Minazuki wagashi to look like ice which then led to the proliferation of this custom.
The minazuki is cut into triangles and consists of two layers with the azuki beans placed on top of the white rice jelly which is also known as uirou (ういろう). The colour and shape of the minazuki are meant to resemble ice which symbolizes chasing away the summer heat while the azuki beans signify the exorcising of devils. Over the years, this simple wagashi may have evolved in many ways in terms of its colours, flavours and the ingredients used but the general structure and significance of this item still remain largely the same.
Using the example of this wagashi maker Daiya from Shiga Prefecture, they have developed six types of minazuki as shown in the photo above. Besides the original flavour with azuki beans, Daiya also produces the matcha with sweetened green peas, crystal which tastes like warabi mochi and has 5 different toppings – sweet natto, yuzu with white kidney beans, nikki (cinnamon) with azuki beans and the pineapple version which is placed at the centre of the rice jelly and topped with azuki. As compared to other forms of wagashi, you can afford to be more creative and adventurous with your choice of ingredients as long as the cooking method is generally adhered to and the appearance of the final product doesn’t deviate too much from the original.
If you want to try making minazuki at home, it is quite easy to do so and doesn’t require many ingredients. There are many recipes online which can be quite varied depending on the flavours, so here is a simple method which consists of a few steps and relatively easy-to-obtain ingredients. As for the amount of ingredients to use, the quantity tends to vary across different recipes so you would need to refer to a specific recipe for the details:
The ingredients include:
– Sifted plain flour
– Arrowroot starch (can be replaced with potato or tapioca starch if you can’t find arrowroot starch in your area)
– Refined rice flour
– Azuki beans
The first step is to add the plain flour, starch, and rice flour together and mix them well. Once this is done, add the water in two portions before sifting the mixture through a strainer. Pour half of it into the mold and place it into the steamer for 15 minutes.
When the first layer is cooked, remove it from the steamer and dab the top with a kitchen towel to remove the moisture. Spread the azuki beans on top before pouring the remaining flour mixture into the mold and send it back to the steamer for another 15 minutes. Once the minazuki has been cooled, just cut them into triangles and your minazuki is ready to be served.
If you intend to make different flavours for your minazuki, you can either modify the ingredients for the uirou layer or the beans used in the top layer. For example, if you would like to have matcha-flavoured minazuki, you can add matcha powder to the flour mixture. If you would like to have some added texture or flavour in the uirou, you can even add yuzu bits for a light citrusy taste. As for the beans, if you do not like azuki beans, you can choose other types of beans provided that they do not break up easily when cooking as it is important to have whole beans on the top of the minazuki. Some versions of the minazuki may have the beans being packed closely together but you can choose to place them slightly apart or add in a mixture of different beans. Have fun and let your creative juices flow!
How about having the minazuki to mark the start of the second half of the year in an auspicious way? Be sure to try it in Japan if you happen to be there during this time!
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