What is Yokan? All You Need to Know About Yokan
In the world of Japanese confections, few treats embody the delicate balance of simplicity and elegance as perfectly as yokan. This delightful sweet has a rich history, dating back centuries, and continues to captivate the palates of people both in Japan and around the world.
Yokan is a traditional Japanese dessert made from simple ingredients, yet its flavors and textures reveal a world of complexity. This jelly-like sweet treat made from red bean paste, agar, and sugar has a smooth, creamy texture and sweet azuki bean flavor that makes it a satisfying snack or dessert.
The History and Origins of Yokan
Yokan is a square, solid confection. It has a distinctive soft, jiggly texture and a sweet azuki bean flavor. In Japanese, it sounds like it could be a dish made with lamb. The origin of the name "yokan" can be traced back to Japan's Kamakura period, over a thousand years ago when it did indeed refer to a lamb-based stew. When the gelatinous components in the broth cooled down, they would solidify into dark, block-like shapes, hence the name yokan.
This dish was brought to Japan by Chinese Zen monks who came to teach. However, since Japanese Zen only allowed vegetarian food, the monks had to substitute other ingredients for the lamb in yokan, and this led to the development of Japan's unique sweet yokan culture.
Yokan really became widespread in 1589, when the fifth generation owner of Tsuruya, Okamoto Zenemon, added tengusa seaweed agar to help it solidify more completely. He presented it to Toyotomi Hideyoshi to taste, and from there yokan's popularity spread. Tsuruya later changed its name to the famous sweets shop Surugaya, which still sells the yokan recipe passed down over generations today.
Types of Yokan
Yokan can be divided into three main types based on ingredients and production method: Steamed Yokan, Refined Yokan, and Mizu (Water) Yokan. Below is a detailed explanation of each type's characteristics and production process.
Mushi Yokan: The Traditional Type
Main ingredients of mushi yokan: azuki bean paste, low-gluten wheat flour, katakuriko potato starch, sugar.
When yokan was first being made, agar had not yet been added to solidify it. Instead, the sticky katakuriko potato starch acted as the gelling agent. After mixing and cooking the sugar, azuki bean paste, and other ingredients, the mixture is poured into leaf wrappings or molds and steamed to set it.
Mushi yokan has a softer, chewier texture compared to the other two types thanks to the katakuriko. It also has a slightly lower sweetness level and density versus neri yokan, but this simple, wholesome flavor has allowed steamed yokan to endure in Japan for hundreds of years. It remains beloved today.
In addition to plain azuki bean steamed yokan, popular modern versions include chestnut yokan studded with chunks of candied chestnut, and sweet potato yokan made with sweet potato. Chestnut yokan is especially popular in autumn when chestnuts are in season. Sweet potato yokan was created when azuki beans were still a luxury ingredient, so commoners used cheaper sweet potatoes as a substitute to be able to enjoy yokan. Both add delightful textures to the soft steamed yokan base.
Neri Yokan: The Popular Type
Main ingredients of neri yokan: agar, sugar, azuki bean paste
Neri yokan is made by directly mixing and heating the main ingredients above, then pouring the mixture into molds to set. The biggest difference from steamed and mizu yokan is the proportion of sugar. Compared to the other two where the ratio is around 1:6 azuki paste to sugar, refined yokan is around 1:4, meaning over 20% is sugar. This makes refined yokan the sweetest of the three types. The texture is also more firm and refined thanks to the lack of added starches. It pairs wonderfully with the slight bitterness of Japanese green tea.
Most packaged refined yokan comes in sealed rectangular bars. In Taiwan, almost all manufactured yokan is the refined type. At traditional Japanese confectionery shops, refined yokan is served with small bamboo blades and picks so guests can enjoy it without getting their hands sticky.
Beyond the original azuki flavor, modern refined yokan also comes in many variations like brown sugar or honey instead of white sugar, or with nuts and dried fruit added for texture. Creative refined yokan is a hot new trend.
In disaster-prone Japan, yokan has gained attention in recent years as an emergency food option. As mentioned earlier, the main ingredients of yokan are sugar and azuki bean paste. Their high sugar content means they can be quickly converted into energy when absorbed, maintaining proper blood sugar levels and vital bodily functions in an emergency situation where food may be scarce. In this way, yokan can temporarily play a similar role to energy bars, providing necessary nutrients.
Moreover, refined yokan with its especially high sugar content not only means high energy, but also longer shelf life. Compared to plain mizu and steamed yokan which stays fresh at room temperature for 1-2 weeks, vacuum-packed refined yokan lasts for months. Some yokan designed specifically for emergency purposes can even stay fresh for up to 5 years.
Mizu (Water) Yokan: The Refreshing Type
Main ingredients of mizu yokan: water, agar, sugar, azuki bean paste
As the name suggests, the distinguishing ingredient of mizu yokan is water. It's made by first mixing a large amount of water with agar powder and heating it, then adding the azuki paste and cooling the mixture to set it. With around 50% water content, mizu yokan has a smooth, gelatinous texture akin to fruit jelly. Of the three yokan types, it has the most refreshingly light and cool feel in one's mouth.
Despite its cooling image, mizu yokan actually originated as part of the osechi traditional New Year's feast dishes in Japan. Only in recent years has it become a popular chilled summer confection. Chilling mizu yokan before generously popping a whole piece in your mouth creates a wonderfully cool, hydrating sensation as it slides down your throat.
Regional Variations of Yokan Across Japan
While the basic ingredients remain the same, yokan takes on delightful regional traits as you travel across Japan. Here are some of the top regional styles of yokan to try:
Kyoto Yokan: Kyoto is renowned for its delicate, refined sweets. Kyoto-style yokan has a soft, smooth texture almost like mochi. It comes in beautiful thin squares with sakura petals or gold flakes.
Tokyo Yokan: Bold-flavored Tokyo yokan stands up to the big city tastes. It often features brown sugar, sesame, or chunks of fruit or nuts for accent.
Okinawa Yokan: Tropical Okinawan yokan contains local fruits like papaya and pineapple for a sunny flavor. It also uses mineral-rich seaweed from Okinawa instead of agar.
Hokkaido Yokan: Yokan from Japan's northernmost main island has rich local dairy flavors like milk and butter. It has a melt-in-your-mouth creaminess.
Matsuyama Yokan: This regional yokan originated in Ehime Prefecture. It's made with citrusy Ehime mikan mandarin orange peels layered between the slices for a refreshing zest.
Kocha Yokan: Kocha yokan from Shikoku combines local dark brown sugar and cacao nibs for a deeply chocolatey flavor.
Matcha Yokan: Green tea-infused matcha yokan is popular across Japan. It has a vivid green color and nicely balanced matcha taste.
Exploring the Many Flavors and Varieties
Beyond regional styles, there is today incredible diversity in yokan flavors and unique creation methods. Some of the most popular include:
White Yokan: Instead of the usual red azuki beans, white yokan uses white kidney beans for a lighter, more delicate flavor profile.
Sesame Yokan: Toasted black or white sesame seeds add nuttiness and crunch. The sesame aroma pairs wonderfully with the sweet bean base.
Chestnut Yokan: Made with creamy chestnut paste instead of red bean paste, this is a seasonal fall favorite. Chestnuts add richer flavor and moist texture.
Matcha Yokan: Ground matcha green tea powder creates the vivid green color and subtle bitter taste that balances the sweetness.
Fruit Yokan: Fruits like whole strawberries, mango chunks, or passionfruit jam can be swirled in for tropical tastes and fun textures.
Warabi Mochi Yokan: Blending the jelly-like cubes of warabi mochi into yokan makes for an extra bouncy, chewy treat.
Yubeshi: This Okinawan confection sandwiches yokan between puffed rice cakes for a crispy outside and soft interior.
Imagawayaki Yokan: Filling the tender Japanese pancakes with yokan creates an irresistible fusion dessert.
Yokan can also come smoked, spiced with sansho pepper, or swirled with kinako soybean powder. It's even crafted into beautiful seasonal shapes like flowers and maple leaves. The possibilities are endless!
How to Enjoy Yokan Like a Local
Now that your mouth is watering, here are some tips for savoring yokan the Japanese way:
Eat in small quantities: The rich, sweet red bean taste means a little yokan goes a long way. Take small bites to properly appreciate the flavors.
Alternate with tea: Sipping green tea in between yokan cleanses the palate and balances the sweetness. Matcha tea is the perfect complement.
Admire the appearance: From the elegant cutting pattern to flower shapes, the visual beauty of yokan is part of the experience.
Try both at room temp and chilled: Yokan can be enjoyed either at normal room temperatures or straight from the fridge. The colder version is more gelatinous.
Pair with fruits or nuts: Fresh fruits like strawberries and mikan mandarin oranges or nuts like walnuts add nice contrasts in texture and flavor accents.
Save the last bite: A Japanese custom dictates leaving one last piece of yokan on the plate rather than finishing it fully.
Buy at specialty shops: For high quality yokan, visit Japanese confectionery shops instead of buying them in bulk at supermarkets.
The Ritual of Giving Yokan as Gifts
Beyond eating it yourself, giving yokan as a gift is an integral part of Japanese culture. Here are some gift-giving customs to know:
Omiyage: Yokan is popular omiyage, or edible souvenirs, to bring back after traveling. It's a nice portable treat to bring to coworkers and family after you have visited somewhere far from your home.
Hospitality: When visiting someone's home in Japan, small gifts like yokan are graciously offered to the host.
Special occasions: During holidays like Christmas and moon-viewing festivals, yokan is gifted in beautiful packaging.
Weddings: Elegant yokan in auspicious shapes is often included in the elaborate wedding gifts for couples.
Funerals: Yokan is traditionally given to mourners attending Buddhist funeral services in Japan.
Business: For important work meetings, high-end yokan is gifted as a sign of respect and gratitude.
New neighbors: When someone moves into a new home, welcoming gifts with yokan and tea may be presented.
For these occasions, yokan is specially packaged in decorative boxes, silk wrapping cloths, or ornate plastic containers. The act of presenting and receiving yokan politely with both hands is important. Quality matters more than quantity.