Field Trip: Nakasu Zenzai

A couple of the added benefits of my Japanese sweets enthusiasm are seeing new or different parts of the city and lots of walking. I have walked to nearly every place, with some exceptions for picking up things while I’m out and the odd day during the rainy season. Even though it was over 30 degrees and over 75% humidity, I woke up and knew I needed to have zenzai: a hot, sweet red bean soup with toasted mochi.

Nakasu Zenzai・中洲ぜんざい is an old-school cafe overlooking the canals in the north of the city. Their zenzai is served with cool hōjicha and a side of salty, soy sauce-thick seaweed to balance out the sweet. There’s obviously a reason this place has out-lasted so many others, and in such prime real estate. It was incredible, chewy and dense and delicious. Not exactly the lightest meal but hey, the heart wants what it wants. Also a lovely excuse to check out a part of the city that I’m not usually in.

Field Trip: Wagashi Ensa

Dessert for lunch again! Welcome to Wagashi Ensa・和がし圓左, a super cute cafe that has been on my wish list for a while. I got one of the sweet sets that includes sweet, frothy matcha, strawberry amazake ice cream, (from left to right) konpeitō・金平糖, mizu manjū・水まんじゅう and minazuki・水無月.

Konpeitō is a confetti-like sugar hard candy that is fun to eat and very classic. Mizu manjū is soft jelly with ultra-light and smooth red bean paste inside; minazuki is a denser mochi-jelly with red beans, both are usually eaten in the summer.

This was a lovely set, a lovely cafe. I hope more people go try it, I was there at prime lunchtime and was the only person there. That is something that always breaks my heart a bit in Fukuoka. There are always about a dozen extremely popular, trendy places (that are often very good and their reputations well-earned) that attract all-day line-ups. Sure it’s nice having the place to myself, but I do wish these entrepreneurs were more supported by their communities. Nearly everywhere else is a ghost town. Long after city restrictions were lifted, so many precious, cool, interesting and innovative or classic places closed down. I know Fukuoka isn’t the only city, nor is Japan the only country this happens in, but I do find it a bit discouraging at times. Eat local, shop local, it is so rewarding!

Hakata Minazuki: Amazake Pudding Edition

A marriage of two (three?) great loves: Hakata minazuki & amazake ( & pudding?). Amazake・甘酒 is a sweet, fermented rice drink with a real umami flavour and extremely low (or non-existant) alcohol content. This was one of my last Hakata minazuki treats: amazake pudding topped with sweet, bouncy gellied red bean paste. This was also one of the best ones! Pudding is definitely not one of my go-to’s, despite its massive popularity in Japan. But this was so cool and innovative, I loved every spoonful.

Hakata Minazuki・博多水無月: Tea & Citrus

Working my way along my sweets haul, today I unwrapped 2 triangles. The dark brown on the left is hōjicha flavoured; roasted green tea. I am a huge hōjicha fan, it is deep and rich and a bit smoky. In my opinion, it’s the tea closest to coffee. It’s what I crave on cool rainy days or from the start of autumn. Not necessarily something I associate personally with summer but I do love it regardless, particularly in the minazuki.

The soft yellow one is ama natsu・甘夏 or natsu mikan・夏蜜柑 flavoured; sweet summer citrus. It was just tart and sweet enough to perk up my afternoon. A very good combination that balanced out surprisingly well!

Minazuki Fruit Salad

Firstly, I did not eat all of these at the same time. Even if I wanted to, I would be hard-pressed to consume that much caffeine at once. The first one is a cute Hakata minazuki・博多水無月 wrapped up to mimic a pineapple! So sweet.

The left is my unwrapped pineapple. Amazing, perfection. The right is white peach. Very delicate, soft.

Best for last: wild mountain plum. This was my favourite last year and it was just as good as I remembered. There are lots of lovely fruit options and I’m excited to branch out to other flavour categories.

A Magical Time: June, or Minazuki season

I had thought maybe since this was my second summer in Fukuoka I wouldn’t be as excited for Hakata minazuki・博多水無月. Incorrect! Better than Christmas. Minazuki is both the word for June in the old Japanese calendar and a sweet eaten in the same month. Hakata minazuki is a regional (Fukuoka city) take on the traditional delicacy. It is surprisingly recent and most shops involved have an individual spin on it. One of my locals, Rabbit Moon, has a beautiful, incredible salted caramel version. Last year, I walked to almost all of the 20 places that offer them (furthest was a 2 hour walk- worth it). So far there is only 1 I haven’t tried.

Anyway! At Rabbit Moon there was a flyer saying a whole bunch of the Hakata minazuki purveyors would gather in one of the fancy department stores in the city centre. I found zero information online. I refreshed the department store website daily. I took a chance and went on the opening day. I saw the beautiful white and blue flag bearing the name of the sweet and was embarrassingly happy.

I wanted to shake other shoppers’ shoulders; doesn’t everyone understand how special these are? I filled up my bamboo basket with treats and the woman working the stand asked me if it was my first time trying them. I admitted that it was not and we chatted about the new flavours and our favourites. The next youngest person there after me was at least 2 decades my senior.

The first one I had getting home was the kinako Hakata minazuki, all toasty and sweet and nutty. What a great day. I love unwrapping the bamboo leaves, I love the seasonality, I love the creativity. Can’t wait to eat them all.

Field Trip: Kuromojiya・黒文字や

Kuromojiya・黒文字や is a very old school cafe near me. How old school? You can still smoke inside. I used to come here for lunch with a friend fairly often but I came with a single goal in mind: dessert.

I got the kuromitsu kinako parfait・黒蜜きな粉パフェ, or black sugar syrup & toasted soybean flour parfait. If asked to describe my dream parfait, I’m not sure what else I could have included.

From left to right:

sweet red beans, shirotama (mochi balls), banana, black sesame ice cream, strawberries, waffle, kinako ice cream, black sugar syrup, kinako warabi mochi.

I love this place so much, its such a perfect, classic hidden gem.

Field Trip: Mume

Mume, a 2 seat reservation-only cafe that books up seemingly instantly has been on my wishlist since I moved to Fukuoka. I check every month, and every month there is not a single space in the calendar. By some miracle, when I checked last week there was a single spot late afternoon in a few days.

It did not disappoint.

Faced with the decision of which dessert I wanted to order, I made the correct choice to get both.

The beautiful grey bowl is filled with matcha zenzai・抹茶ぜんざい, this interpretation includes vanilla ice cream, coarse red bean paste, chewy white mochi balls, matcha pudding with a slice of plum swimming on top of thick matcha. It was served with cool hōjicha (tea) and a lovely little biscuit. It was beyond incredible, it was sublime.

However, the monaka・モナカ was true evidence of the divine. Without exaggeration, it brought me to tears. I love monaka, little cutely-shaped wafers with bean paste, but this was unlike anything I’ve had before. Inside the perfect flower, there was smooth red bean paste, softened fermented butter, and dried figs. The texture combination was actual perfection, the taste combination was so simple but impeccably balanced. It was hard not to order 15 more, but that is one of my favourite parts of Japanese wagashi; the seasonality, the impermanence, how special in the moment they are.

Summer Stone Fruits

A very traditional and beautiful old sweet shop I go to often is Kamiyaseika・加美家製菓, the owner is so sweet and chatty. They sell some items in front of their shop and never lack seasonal treats. I bought these mizumanjū・水まんじゅう which are perfect and refreshing in the summer. The pink is plum & white bean paste wrapped in jelly and the pale yellow is peach flavoured.