Food & Drink

Secret techniques and local ingredients: Okinawan sweets fit for a king

by Stephen Mansfield

Contributing Writer

If Okinawans are quick to assert their cuisine has little in common with the mainland Japanese table, the same can be said of their confectionery.

Strongly influenced by Chinese tastes, the most refined sweets were exclusive to the royal court when Okinawa was an independent entity known as the Ryukyu Kingdom (1372-1879). Documents recovered from the World War II bombing of Shuri Castle suggest there were as many as 230 confectionery recipes, the finest delicacies served to visiting Chinese and Japanese envoys. Masae Arakaki, owner of the shop Arakaki Kashiten, and a direct descendant of the the kingdom’s last royal chef, maintains that “Ryukyu-kashi (Okinawan confectionery) is the fruit of a Ryukyu Kingdom aesthetic taste.”

Typifying these tastes are chiirunkō, a fluffy, steamed cake sprinkled with peanuts; chinbin, rolled crepes made with kokutō (brown sugar); and chinsukō, a popular shortbread cookie made from wheat flour, sugar and lard. Use of the latter ingredient highlights one of the basic differences between mainland Japanese and Okinawan confectionery: The former uses water as a base, the latter oil.

My immersion into the world of Okinawa’s sweets begins at a branch of Okashi Goten, a well-known confectionery chain, in the Motobu Peninsula. Loosely modeled after Shuri Castle in Naha, the store is a veritable (and unashamedly commercial) sweets emporium. Though a good introduction to the range of mainstream Okinawan confectionery, the displays have all the subtlety of Las Vegas chocolate fountains. As I leave, busloads of tourists exit with armfuls of the chain’s famous sweet-potato tarts.

The final touch: Okinawan sweets dusted with sugar.
The final touch: Okinawan sweets dusted with sugar. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

I do rather better at Emi no Mise, a restaurant in the northern village of Ogimi. The eatery’s trademark organic lunch sets come with a small sampling of sātā-andagī, generically defined as sweet doughnuts. This version is thickened with brown sugar and flavored with shīkuwāsā, an Okinawan citrus fruit. For dessert, I opt for slightly salted tapioca andagī, made from mashed cassava root starch that’s mixed with purple sweet potato and then flattened by hand. Interestingly, this is served with locally grown bamboo shoots sauteed in bonito broth, the sweet, dry taste of the andagī a pleasant balance against the slightly earthy bamboo shoots.

I only truly realize the essence of refined Okinawan confectionery when I enter the doors of Jahana Kippan Ten, a 130-year-old, six-generation family business. The Jahanas were one of the “36 families” — part of an immensely influential community of diplomats, engineers, ship builders, artists, calligraphers and Confucian scholars — to arrive in the Ryukyu Islands from China’s Fujian province, settling in Kumemura, near Naha’s Shuri Castle, in 1392.

Local produce: Shibui winter melons stacked and ready to be made into tōgazuke.
Local produce: Shibui winter melons stacked and ready to be made into tōgazuke. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Applying confectionery skills learned in China, the Jahanas supplied kippan (a sweet made with kunenbo, a citrus fruit similar to a Satsuma orange, and coated in liquid sugar) and tōgazuke (a sweet made of the simmered center of the shibui winter melon) to the Ryukyu court. Even today, Jahana Kippan Ten’s products hark back to the aesthetics and tastes of Ryukyu court confectionery.

Entering its spotlessly clean kitchen, where the mood is convivial but concentrated, Jahana Kippan’s staff are hard at work compressing one version of kippan into circular disks, after which they dry and coat them with, in this instance, liquid sugar — an arduous, time-consuming process that requires a deft hand and cannot be achieved by machinery. “The outcome (of the kippan),” Hisano Jahana, the sixth-generation head of the enterprise stresses, “will depend on both temperature and humidity.”

Preserving tradition while encouraging innovation: Hisano Jahana, the sixth-generation head of Jahana Kippan Ten.
Preserving tradition while encouraging innovation: Hisano Jahana, the sixth-generation head of Jahana Kippan Ten. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Jahana, while open and hospitable, values privacy and the integrity of the shop’s methods. “We have a lot of secrets here,” she says with a smile. She isn’t referring to recipes, which are relatively easy to replicate, but to processes. “The oven settings,” she explains, “are strictly off limits.”

Honoring the past while actively developing fresh products ensures that tradition is preserved while encouraging innovation. “We want to create new ideas for sweets and test them on our customers,” Jahana asserts. A shīkuwāsā-flavored tōgazuke is one such departure; another variety is soaked in rum produced on the nearby island of Iejima.

New lexicons of taste: A box of Jahana Kippan Ten
New lexicons of taste: A box of Jahana Kippan Ten’s kippan (sweets made with kunenbo citrus fruit) topped with coconut and powdered green tea. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Jahana’s kippan stands as a direct rebuttal to the common charge that Okinawan sweets lack the delicacy of Japanese confectionery. Its crystalized, brittle texture resembles a caramelized honeycomb, a sweetly rarified creation, with an initially solid structure than soon dissolves exquisitely in the mouth, its citrus elements leaving a fresh, faintly bitter aftertaste. Toppings of green tea powder, coconut, ginger, soybean or cinnamon, shift the taste lexicon into new sensory zones.

Kippan, it turns out, goes very well with strong, ground coffee as well as dessert wine. A more Okinawan pairing, perhaps, is tea. Unlike mainland water, which is soft, mineral-rich Okinawan water is hard, giving tea a more bitter flavor. Sweets are the perfect match to a cup of local sanpincha or Yanbaru-cha, both quite similar to jasmine tea, or a bowl of bukubukucha, Okinawa’s tea ceremony brew, a frothy concoction made from unpolished rice, topped with coarsely ground peanuts. Even the teas down here are different.

Jahana Kippan Ten can be found at Matsuo 1-5-14, Naha, Okinawa 900-0014. For more information, visit www.jahanakippan.com/en.

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