When I first met Evan, we were both living in Yellowknife NT, some 5,000 km away from home in Canada’s subarctic. Periodically, he would receive care packages from his Japanese- Canadian family which contained a variety of delectables I’d never seen or heard of. One of these was homemade yaki manju.
If you’ve been fortunate enough to visit Japan, you may be familiar with the tiny confections known as wagashi. These bite-sized sweets come in a variety of shapes, textures and flavours and are often served with tea or given as gifts.
Manju is one of the cheapest and most popular treats you can purchase in Japan, with each region of the country and some cities having their own version of the snack.
Traditionally, manju is a round or oval cake filled with sweetened red adzuki bean paste called Anko or Koshi An.
Japanese tourism websites claim manju first appeared on the scene in the 14th century when it was brought to the islands by Chinese convoys. However, the Chinese version mantou was more like a steamed dumpling and usually contained savory fillings such as pork. Because Japanese Buddhist religion at the time forbade meat, they opted for a vegetarian middle made of white or red beans.
Manju can be steamed or baked. Yaki manju, which is the version Evan’s mom Tamiko makes, has a light, crispy outer layer similar to a sugar cookie or pie crust. It is baked in the oven. Steamed manju has a moist cakey texture and is meant to be consumed immediately.
Mochi manju or Daifuku is also popular. In this case the outer shell is made from glutinous short-grain rice which is cooked and pounded into a pasty, sticky dough. However, today many people skip the hassle of this process and simply use rice flour.
The possibilities are endless when it comes to manju. Some are infused with matcha (green tea), sake (Japanese rice wine), or sakura (cherry blossom), while others are shaped like maple leaves or Kawaii (cute) characters.
Though it’s easy to find every variety of manju imaginable in Japan, the same cannot be said of Canada. Here it is a family tradition, with recipes passed down through the generations and if you’re lucky, you have someone as wonderful as Tamiko to show you how it’s done.
Because I didn’t grow up eating it, I will say manju can be an acquired taste- it’s not what you expect from a cookie or cake. Chewy, but not overly sweet, it first reminded me of a fig newton. Since meeting Evan, manju has grown on me and I’m excited for the day our daughter will try it for the first time.
Creating those perfect golden balls is an art, but Tamiko makes it look easy. Often when we go to visit, she will be whipping up a batch for a dinner party, event, or as a gift for a visiting relative. If you’re lucky, she’ll slip you one right after it comes out of the oven. This is when it’s best.
Tamiko has the process down to a science. Each ball is uniformly shaped, and the dough perfectly encapsulates the red ‘An’ paste inside. (It’s a bit like the mystery of the Caramilk chocolate bar). She tells me her Bachan (grandmother) taught her how to make manju when she was just 12 years old and she still uses that recipe, but makes only a fraction of the original yield.
Of her family members, she is the only one who makes manju regularly. Some have forgotten how, others find the process too time-consuming and have created easier substitutions such as using Pillsbury crescent roll dough in place of the traditional outer crust.
Over the holidays, she took the time to show me how to make her Bachan’s recipe which I have included in a step-by-step format below, along with Tamiko’s tips and additions. My first attempt was a little shaky, but practice makes perfect. If you’re a fan of Japanese desserts, I would encourage you to give it a try yourself. Ganbatte kudasai (good luck!)
Fuki Shimoda’s Manju
For the filling:
1 500-gram pkg. pre-made sweetened red bean paste (also called Anko or Koshi An)*
Place bean paste (An) in a bowl and stir well.
Refrigerate for several hours or overnight. Similar to cookie dough, An is easier to work with and shape into balls when it is cold.
After removing from the fridge, stir again to absorb excess moisture. It should be slightly watery.
Using your hands, form An into 1” balls and place on a plate. (Something with a raised edge works well).
One 500-gram pkg of An should yield around 36 balls.
*Anko or Koshi An can be purchased at specialty Asian markets or in the Asian section of some grocery stores. It is usually in a plastic pouch or can (if you’re in the GTA, the P.A.T. market carries the one we used.)
See recipe below to make your own from scratch.
For the dough:
1 ¼ c. flour
½ c. sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
¼ c. butter softened to room temperature
2 large eggs
⅛ c. milk or less
Goma (black sesame seeds) for garnish
Preheat oven to 350F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
In a small bowl, combine flour and baking powder. Set aside. In a large bowl, beat one of the eggs. Stir in sugar.
In a separate bowl, cream butter. Add to egg mixture along with salt and milk. Mix well.
Fold dry mixture into the wet, stir until well combined. Add more flour if necessary.
Divide dough in half. Place one half back in the bowl and cover so it doesn’t dry out. Place other half on a lightly floured surface.
Using floured hands, roll dough into long tube, approximately 1” in diametre. (Repeat this step with other half of dough).
Slice into 1” pieces.
Roll each piece into a ball, then gently flatten.
Place one ball of An in the centre of the circle. Lightly balancing the An and dough on the tips of your thumb, index and middle finger, rotate the circle while lightly pulling the edges of the dough up around the An with your opposite hand.
Allow the An to do the work here so you are not overly stretching the dough. Once it has stretched around the An, pinch together the open seam in a star shape so no An is visible.
(See video below)
Flip over cake, roll gently between your hands to create a slightly flattened ball. Transfer to prepared cookie sheets, seam side down.
Repeat until all dough and An is used.
Beat egg in a small bowl. Using a pastry brush, wet the top and sides of each manju.
Press a sprinkling of Goma into to the top of each cake.
Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown.
How to make your own Anko (sweetened red bean paste)
2 c. dry Azuki (Red Beans)
1 ⅓ c. sugar
1 tsp. Salt
4 ½ c. water
Soak beans overnight. Rinse and drain.
Add beans and water to large sauce pot and bring to a boil. Simmer on medium-high for 10-15 minutes. Skim any foam.
Turn heat down to low and continue simmering for 1-2 hours, or until beans are soft, stirring occasionally so they don’t stick to the bottom of the pot.
Most of the liquid should boil off, but the beans should have a slightly watery texture. More water will be absorbed as they cool. Add sugar and salt, stir well until dissolved.
Remove from heat and refrigerate overnight.
Stir well before making Manju.