For those of you who know nothing about Japan and have never visited, sugar isn’t native to Japan. Any sugar Japan has must be imported from another country. As a result, when sugar was first introduced it was a luxury item and was not used in sweets, but rather for medicinal purposes. It wasn’t until much later that sugar was used for sweets and desserts. Yet, Japan had desserts long before sugar. They just sweetened their desserts with what grew naturally on the island and it’s for this reason that they seem to lack the excessive sweet tooth common in Western culture.
But what did they use instead of sugar? Anko.
Anko is a paste made from red adzuki beans, and this paste comes in multiple formats. The most common forms of anko are ‘tsubuan‘ and ‘koshian‘. The former, tsubuan, is when the whole bean(skin and all) is boiled and used. This results in a very crunchy, textured version of paste. Koshian, on the other hand, is when the paste is sieved to remove the skins, thus resulting in a much finer, smoother paste. Both are a dark red, maroon, or almost purple color.
Now for a Westerner, anko can be a bit strange. While the Japanese find anko to be sweet, it’s nowhere near as sweet as what we’re accustomed to: chocolate, s’mores, cake, pie, cookies, brownies, etc, etc. So for me, it didn’t taste that sweet at all. There was just the subtlest of sweetness to it, almost imperceptible, which made it seem less like a dessert to me.
Yet, the texture was probably the hardest part for me. The flavor was good enough, but the tsubuan form of anko was just strange for me. I didn’t like the crunch or feeling like I had to chew more than I would have thought for a soft, sweet dessert. So, that was the strangest part, but koshian was actually quite nice, even enjoyable if a bit odd.
Either way, I’m definitely happy I tried anko, especially since it’s such a staple in so many desserts because it acts as a filling. In fact, some common desserts that utilize anko-filling are daifuku(more on this next Wednesday), anpan(or sweet bread), manju, dorayaki(which I didn’t try while in Japan, but it’s two small pancakes squished together with anko inside), taiyaki, and so much more! While anko was not necessarily sweet in any of these desserts (at least not in the sense that Westerners would think) it does have a knack for adding just a hint of flavor. Even so, I can’t imagine anko popping up in Western desserts just because it’s not quite sweet enough for us.
Though, it’s because of my excessive sweet tooth that many of the Japanese found my eating habits to be rather… strange (eating straight out of a peanut cream jar because it was the closest I could get to peanut butter). They would always ask me ‘isn’t it too sweet?‘ And I just stared back at them like they were crazy. :p I mean, heck! In my family we eat raw cookie dough, lick the cake batter bowl, and dip spoons into frosting containers after the cake is frosted. Haha! Y’all dunno what sweet is!
All in all while I may not miss anko back here in the states, it was a lot of fun trying something so authentic and rich in culture while in Japan. I even got to try it while visiting a shrine. You know, the real traditional kind that dates back centuries. Such a cool feeling. If you get the chance, you should at least give anko a try. You never know, you might like it. ^.^