The best way to close an impeccable kaiseki meal is perhaps a piece of seasonal, perfectly ripe fruit. A small pile of peeled Concord grapes or a honey-sweet muskmelon signal the time of year and leave the palate clean and refreshed. There are, however, a few popular washoku desserts that may be prepared simply that will serve just as well.
While Western dessert items rely on flour, butter, cream and sugar, washoku desserts are comprised mostly of gelatins, starches, sugars, beans, sweet potatoes, chestnuts, fruits and rice flours.
Westerners might perceive Japanese desserts as being exceptionally sweet, and in many cases they are right. Washoku desserts evolved from ultra-sweet tea accompaniments and are often still served with some kind of tea, or with the bitter matcha of the tea ceremony. However, taken in moderate amounts, these washoku desserts can be a fitting finale to a well-balanced traditional meal.
Today we’ll look at a dessert called kuzukiri no kuromitsu. Almost flavorless kuzu starch noodles are served with a very sweet syrup seasoned lightly with soy sauce. This dessert is made with ingredients that aren’t especially seasonal, and so may be enjoyed year-round.
Kuromitsu is the syrup byproduct of the manufacture of crystallized sugar. When unrefined sugar-cane juice is boiled, the crystallized substances are removed to make pure refined sugar; the remaining syrup is kuromitsu. High concentrations of iron, calcium and phosphorous in this liquid produce a thick syrup ranging in color from a light golden brown to a coal-black.
Native Japanese kuromitsu is made primarily in Okinawa and parts of Kyushu from the unrefined syrup of sugar-cane. Kuromitsu can be sulfured or not. While widely available in the liquid (mitsu) form, this dark syrup is often hardened, broken into small chunks and sold as kurozato (“black sugar”). Restaurant chefs and many home cooks prefer to buy this pure, hardened, unrefined sugar and make their own kuromitsu.
In the following syrup, a small amount of soy sauce is added to offset the sweetness. Unlike store-bought mitsu, this syrup must be refrigerated and will keep for several weeks. A careful, slow simmering will result in the best final product. (Remember, for water cc = milliliters = grams; a Japanese 1-cup measure is 200 cc.)
250 grams kurozato
160 grams sugar (granulated or castor)
550 cc water
2/3 tablespoon koikuchi shoyu (dark soy sauce)
1) In an appropriate size saucepan combine the water, kurozato and granulated sugar over medium-high heat.
2) When the mixture boils, reduce heat to a simmer and skim any foam off the top of the liquid.
3) Continue to skim, and occasionally stir mixture over low heat for 1 1/2 hours or until thickened.
4) To test thickness, dip the tip of your finger into a small amount of cooled mitsu. The mitsu should coat the finger with a thin film and a visible droplet should form on the underside. (Western cooking uses the term “nappe” meaning a liquid is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.) If needed, continue cooking for a further 30 minutes.
5) When sufficiently thick, remove from heat and add the soy sauce.
6) Strain through several layers of cheesecloth and cool.
7) When cool, the syrup must be stored in the refrigerator. Keeps for several weeks.
Kuzuko is the hardened powder starch made from the root of the kudzu vine. It is used to thicken sauces and jellies, and also to make various kinds of noodlelike food products. These kuzukiri noodles may be bought ready made or made from powdered kuzuko and served fresh.
The process of making these noodles is not complicated, but takes some skill. A little practice should yield nice results.
A “batter” of the powdered starch and water is thinly poured into a flat pan suspended in a hot water bath (bain-marie) and cooked briefly until solidified. The resulting thin film of starch looks like a gelatin crepe. Quickly cooled, these “crepes” can be cut into thick or thin noodles. The flat-bottom pan used in this preparation is called a nagashikan. Held with a pair of pliers-like tongs called yattoko, the nagashikan sits on the surface of near-boiling water.
Kuzuko is sold near the other starches in the supermarket, usually in a light-color opaque paper bag. You cannot substitute katakuriko (potato starch) or cornstarch.
60 grams kuzuko
150 cc water
1) Place the powdered chunks of kuzuko in a bowl and add the water.
2) Break up the large pieces with your fingers and incorporate until the starch has completely dissolved.
3) Strain the mixture through a fine metal sieve (uragoshi in Japanese, tamis in French).
4) Hold a flat-bottom pan (if a nagashikan is not available, a cake pan works well) touching the surface of the almost boiling water.
5) Pour a small amount of the kuzuko mixture into the pan and tilt the pan to coat evenly. The liquid should be about 2 mm thick.
6) Hold the pan over the hot water and cook until the liquid has solidified and become transparent.
7) When firm remove the nagashikan to the bowl of ice water and cool. Even when submerged in water the firm kuzu crepe will not disintegrate. This helps to loosen the crepe from the pan. Repeat.
8) Cut each sheet of kuzu crepe separately into 5-mm noodles. Store in a bowl of water. These may be made several days in advance and stored covered in water in the refrigerator.
When ready to serve, place the strained noodles in an individual serving bowl and cover with kuromitsu. Garnish with a leaf. May be served chilled or at room temperature. Serves 4 to 6 people.