There are many routes to discover Japan, for example through the country’s history or martial arts, through its pop culture, or even…through its highly developed culture of desserts. While most Japanese sweets will be familiar to us, there are a few which you might not have seen before, for example “coffee jelly,” a slightly sweetened coffee flavored gelatin that’s really good with whipped cream on top — Starbucks sells a Coffee Jelly Frappuccino in the summer which I love. The Japanese are big fans of かき氷 kaki-gori, or shaved, ice, and there’s nothing quite as good to eat in the summer. Another popular dessert in Japan is called プリン purin, an egg custard/flan style pudding with caramel sauce on top which was unknown to me before I got here, though it’s one of my favorites now (and Makise Kurisu of Steins;Gate, too). Nata de Coco is a well-known dessert in the Philippines with firm, chewy squares made from coconuts, which is really good in yogurt. Cake is big here too, and most cake shops are small, highly professional outfits with Japanese pâtissier who has studied for several years in Paris. The cakes sell for $5 per piece and up, and you almost never buy a whole cake as it’d be too expensive. Finally, there are many kinds of ice cream in Japan, including 抹茶 matcha (green tea) and 白熊アイス shirokuma aisu, the “polar bear ice cream” from Kagoshima, which is vanilla ice cream with fruit frozen inside.
Of course, the Japanese always draw a strict line between things that are “Western,” which generally entered the country after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, and older things which are “Japanese.” The Japanese word for clothes is 洋服 yohfuku, literally “Western clothing” (i.e. not a kimono), and a normal way to refer to a modern room is 洋間 youma (“Western room”). In a similar way, all the desserts mentioned above have a very “Western” feel to them, though some foods imported more than 500 years ago, like kompeito star candies or castella cakes from Nagasaki seem to be considered Japanese since they’ve been around so long. There is a unique world of traditional Japanese sweets called 和菓子 wagashi, which consists of incredibly beautiful candies molded into the shapes of flowers or leaves, manju cakes with sweet beans and sakura petals inside, dango (balls of chewy mochi rice) on sticks, and more. The next time you visit Japan, we hope you’ll explore all these delicious desserts!