A chill is in the air and yesterday I was even moved to turn on my oven and make soup. If the drop in temperature is provoking you to pack on a little extra insulation, read on. What follows is a roundup of some of the seasonal sweets that are hitting the shelves and snackeries around town.
Chestnuts are the king of autumn sweets in Japan. These spiky treasures, called kuri, are staunch favorites, and you can’t turn around without seeing something “marron” (because French is fancy), be it cake, drinks, or cronuts.
In their pure form, you can get coal-roasted chestnuts from street vendors around this time (check areas like around Thunder Gate at Asakusa), but these tend to be expensive, running 500 yen or more for a small bag of these toasty, meaty gems. For a cheaper version, try the supermarket – some markets, like Seiyu and Sotetsu Rosen, have freshly roasted chestnuts for sale in the produce section during the fall and winter. And for a super budget version, you can pick up packaged roasted chestnuts at places like Daiso. Also, if you’d like to try your hand at home-roasting, or throwing them in your rice cooker for kuri-gohan, another fall favorite, think about heading to the Okutama region for a hike and some shopping—I picked up a kilo bag of raw chestnuts from a small roadside vegetable stand for only a few hundred yen.
Chestnut-flavored things are big during this season. Mont Blanc is perhaps one of the most famous incarnations—a cake made from swirled sweetened chestnut paste with a bit of pastry crust and whipped cream. Doutor coffee shop has a marron latte going right now for about 300 yen, and Mister Donut has finally jumped on the cronut bandwagon with a croissant-chestnut-cream-donut for around 200 yen.
Pumpkin (or its cousin, kabocha squash, which is usually what you are getting when you see something that says “pumpkin”) flavor runs a distant second to chestnut in the fall flavor department, but you’ll still see it represented in shops and restaurants, especially those that have Western elements. For those who love funky Kit Kat flavors, this season we have pumpkin pudding (more like flan), going for around 280 yen a bag. You’ll also find pumpkin-flavored cakes and a few coffee drinks (especially at the US chains), but good luck finding a slice of pumpkin pie. To sample some cake creations, Fujiya and Cozy Corner are a couple of ubiquitous cake chains with competitive prices—slices start around 300 yen. For a more traditional treat, check the taiyaki stands—these grilled, fish-shaped cakes are usually filled with sweet bean paste, custard, or cream, but many vendors add a seasonal twist right about now and make the cakes with pumpkin or chestnut flavored filling.
Sweet potatoes are another popular native flavor that gets a lot of play around this time. In late fall and winter, you may hear a truck roll by with a nasal voice calling from a loudspeaker—ishiyakiimo—–, yakiimo! (Stone roasted sweet potatoes! Sweet potatoes!) These trucks have fire pits built right into the back bed, and if you flag one down, the vendor will pull a piping hot tuber right off the coals and hand it to you wrapped in newspaper. Want to roast your own? The markets and vegetable stands have some great varieties—if you can get your hands on some, try the deep purple (inside and out) beni-imo—an Okinawan sweet potato with brilliantly colored flesh. In fact, beni-imo is also popular to make sweets with, since it naturally lends its beautiful hue to whatever tidbits it graces. One such sweet is a beni-imo version of Mont Blanc.
For more on finding roasted sweet potato, visit here.
(Is this a good place to share a mnemonic that my mom told me about when I was a kid? Some people have used “Hotta imo ijiru na”, which means “touch the potato that I dug up” as a way to remember “What time is it now?” If you listen closely, with a Japanese accent, you can hear the resemblance.)
I can’t go away without talking about this soy milk. Kikkoman makes a line of deeelicious flavored soy milks in little bird-flying-into-the-sun tetra pack boxes, and up until now my favorite was the annin, or apricot pit flavor. They have just released a fall shouga, or ginger, flavor, and it is spectacular. If you like ginger, I highly encourage you to check it out—it (almost, kinda) scratches that egg nog itch. They also have seasonal chestnut and roasted sweet potato varieties—for yummy, healthy AND cheap (these run around 80 yen apiece), don’t miss these.
Fall favorites that we missed? Comment away!