A traditional sweet treat
Manju are a very popular sweet throughout all of Japan. They are available in hundreds of different shapes and flavors.
What is a manju?
One of the cheapest sweet snacks in Japan, it's also one of the most consumed treats, especially with tea. Generally, it's a round or oval cake filled with red azuki bean paste (anko), the outside of which is made of wheat, rice and/or buckwheat flour. It's similar to mochi (same concept), except that its dough has the texture of a cake, unlike that of mochi which is chewy and elastic.
To read: Azuki
Traditionally, manju are steamed, but they can also be baked in the oven. The vast majority of manju are sweet. Nevertheless, there are savory versions filled with meat or fish. They can often be found at street stalls or in konbini.
It is believed that manju arrived in Japan in the fourteenth century, through a convoy returning from China. Indeed, its name and recipe come from the Chinese "mantou", a steamed, unfilled or stuffed meat roll. In Japan, since Buddhism forbade meat consumption at that time, manju were mainly vegetarian.
So many manju!
It could be the challenge of a lifetime for a foodie to determine how many different manju exist in Japan! While they are traditionally stuffed with anko, today you can find all sorts of varieties: filling made from white beans, chestnuts, or fruits.
In addition, their shape may also differ: round, oval, even shaped like popular kawaii characters. It's normal to see hundreds of variations of manju depending on the city or region, as well as at special events or festivals, which develop their own version.
The island of Miyajima, for example, is considered to be the home of the momiji manju. In the shape of a Japanese maple leaf, it's a small cake that delights tourists who come to admire the floating torii in Hiroshima Bay. In the same way, Mount Koya (Koyasan) also has its own red bean paste manju, whose shape recalls the sacred stone Miroku, which is said to seem light to the virtuous and heavy to the fishermen.
Another example of this regional diversity is the Hakata torimon, a typical Fukuoka sweet, a round cake with a filling of butter jam and white bean, based on the traditional manju recipe.
At the Moon Festival Tsukimi you will find the rabbit-shaped tsukimi manju (not to be confused with mochi in the shape of the small animal symbol of the lunar star, that are also prepared for this festival).
And of course, another occasion where you can taste somewhat special manju will be during the sakura season, during which several places prepare manju flavored with cherry blossom.