Wagashi are traditional japanese sweets, originating as accompaniments to the bitter flavors of green tea used in traditional tea ceremony.
Making wagashi can be an incredible art form, yielding small confections that look like miniature sculptures. They are beautiful and delicious.
So as you can imagine I one-clicked so hard when I discovered Something’s Wrong With Us, a dark, romantic manga thriller by Nastumi Ando set in the world of traditional wagashi shops. I’ve read all five of the volumes that are currently available in English, and so far the series has NOT disappointed.
Nao meets Tsubaki again by chance fifteen years later. Not realizing she is his childhood friend grown up (she’s going by a different name), he asks her to marry him for his own Mysterious Reasons. Keeping her true identity a secret, she agrees, intending to use this as a chance to figure out what happened between Tsubaki’s father and her mother fifteen years ago.
Everything about this series is totally bananapants, but in an enjoyable way. It helps that the art is beautiful. I mean, look at this chapter cover art:
In addition to being quite informative about how wagashi are made and what they symbolize, this series is twisty, seductive, and mysterious. Everyone around Nao (and Nao herself) seems to be involved in schemes on top of counter-schemes. Every character who isn’t outright evil is morally grey in some way, though it’s hard not to feel the most sympathy for our heroine, who just wants to understand what happened to her mother and keep making wagashi (not necessarily in that order).
The series also does a good job of walking the line where the hero is, on the one hand, genuinely kind of an asshole, but on the other hand, also genuinely misunderstood and deserving of empathy. Frequently the heroes of manga series are really just assholes and the relationship between the hero and heroine feels fundamentally unbalanced, but not so here. Nao and Tsubaki are equally matched as sexy adversaries/allies/lovers/what-exactly-are-they? Trying to figure it out is half the fun of the series. Also, both Nao and Tsubaki are EXTREMELY passionate about making wagashi, and it is always a lot of fun for me to read about characters who are wholly devoted to kind of a niche skill.
I’ve pretty much been craving wagashi since I got back from Japan, and starting this manga cranked those cravings up to 11. I can only read the words “red bean paste” so many times before I NEED to eat some. So I started to wonder if I could make some myself–not the gorgeous sculpted confections like those featured in the manga, of course, but something more like the simple but delicious desserts I got in shops and cafes as quick snacks throughout my trip?
After some aggressive googling I landed on Just One Cookbook, a Japanese cooking blog created by Nami Chen aimed at helping home cooks make authentic Japanese recipes. JOC has recipes for many varieties of wagashi. Being far more experienced at eating Japanese cuisine than making it, I decided I would start with something on the simpler side: manju.
Manju is basically a small sweet bun usually (but not always) filled with sweet red bean paste. They can be steamed or baked; this recipe that I used is for steamed manju.
You can definitely make homemade red bean paste (and Just One Cookbook has a recipe!) but I decided to buy some instead because (a) I am lazy and (b) I figured I wouldn’t try to tackle too many new things at one time. I bought this red bean paste to use in my manju and it was very good.
Sweet bean paste comes in smooth and chunky varieties. I got smooth because that was primarily what I had in Japan, but I imagine you could use chunky if you wanted a little more texture inside.
With store-bought bean paste, the process of making manju is quite simple; I just had to make some simple brown-sugar dough, wrap it around balls of bean paste, and steam them. The hardest part by FAR was actually assembling the manju. This may be partly because my dough turned out ever so slightly sticky, probably due to the fact that at one point I added a little extra water because I thought there was too much unincorporated loose flour in the dough (extra water: one of the classic baking blunders!).
In addition to my sticky dough, I never hit upon a method I liked for getting the dough wrapped around the ball. Trying to do a circle like the recipe suggests invariably left me with a bunch of extra dough at the sides and not enough to cover the top. But I could not really find an alternative method that looked any better. So I ended up with six somewhat misshapen but passable-looking buns. Even though they were a little wonky, they turned out more or less the right size and shape, which was good enough for me.
I also realized right at the end of bun assembly that I forgot to cover the dough and the buns I wasn’t currently working on with a wet paper towel like I was supposed to. Oops! However, since I halved the recipe and only made 6 manju, there wasn’t enough time for anything to dry out too much.
Finally, I steamed my little buns in a metal steamer pot for 10 minutes. And voila! Manju.
As you can see, they turned out a little wrinkly and lumpy instead of smooth and uniform like the pictures on Just One Cookbook. I don’t really care though, because they were DELICIOUS!!!! Seriously. Probably 75% of the credit goes to my pre-made bean paste, but even so I exceeded my own expectations. If you have a steamer pot or basket and you like the flavor of sweet red bean, I highly recommend trying your hand at manju.
True artisans Nao and Tsubaki from Something’s Wrong With Us would be ashamed to ever serve my not-very-beautiful manju. Also, they would never buy bean paste instead of making it themselves. But with a tall glass of iced uji-sencha green tea, they were the perfect afternoon snack. Both the manga and the manju were a hit with me!
And now I have LOTS of leftover red bean paste…so which wagashi should I tackle next? I’m thinking dorayaki, which is a sweet red bean-filled pancake sandwich!