5 Classic Japanese Sweets To Enjoy With Your Coffee

The Perfect Alternatives For Your Afternoon Java Break

By Kirsty Kawano
February 21, 2017
Food & Drink

Coffee and karinto is the new honey and milk.

Rich in texture, refinement and centuries-old techniques of pleasing the sweet tooth of its people, the world of Japanese traditional sweets offers so much to explore. Here are five classic Japanese sweets that you may have never thought would go well with coffee — but I assure you they do and invite you to try for yourself. So grab a cup of freshly brewed java and get that tasting started.  

Kurobo

Literally translated as “black stick,” this traditional snack from the Kyushu region uses raw sugar, eggs and flour to create a sublime partner for a strong coffee. Basically like a stick of sponge cake that has absorbed raw sugar, kurobo remains soft and aerated on the inside though its exterior is covered in a crisp sugar coating. This is the perfect Japanese sweet for dunking, especially into a strong cup o’ joe where the bitterness will balance the deep, rich sweetness of the raw sugar. The contrast of crispy outer and soft, foamy interior makes each bite a textural joy. Although it won’t win any beauty contests, kurobo wins my vote for best Japanese coffee partner.

Where to buy: In the regional treats section of supermarkets and department stores, priced around ¥300 for a pack of ten.

Karinto

Another unfortunate-looking and sticky traditional snack is the karinto, which are deep-fried sticks of a mix of flour, yeast, water, salt, baking soda and sugar – sometimes raw sugar, sometimes white, sometimes with honey. The deep frying creates a heady roasted scent and flavor, especially in raw sugar varieties. It takes a good bite to break the thick sugary shell – which later creates a nice bit of chew – and despite all that sugar, the sweetness is a mild one. These are another good match for a bitter drink and worth a wiggle in a latte. 

Where to buy: At any supermarkets and convenience stores in all shapes, kinds and flavors for around ¥250 a pack.

Manju

Typically manju is a small, roundish sweet that uses a dough of flour, baking powder, sugar and water to encompass a boiled paste of sugar and azuki beans. This red-bean paste has scared many foreigners away from traditional Japanese sweets and particularly the manju– but fear not, there are alternatives.

One of the most approachable of those is offered by Chidoriya, a traditional sweets shop, which coats its signature manju (¥140) in castella, the honeyed sponge cake introduced to Japan by Portuguese merchants in the 16th century. The internal bean paste, or anko, is made of sweetened white beans. It also makes a yellow version in which egg is added to the white mix. These lighter shades of anko are typically a smooth paste, unlike the red one which can also come in a chunky style that contains whole red beans. The castella skin turns the old school manju into a true cake-like pleasure, while it also adds a decidedly cross-cultural experience where the casing meets the bean paste and creates a wonderful chewy texture within what is overall a light and refined eating experience.

The textural joy of Chidoriya’s centuries-old techniques is also perfected in its Sumidagawa manju (¥162). An upgraded manju, it uses the slightly richer yellow anko in these and adds cinnamon to the outer layer. They are crusty on the outside, fluffy on the inside and chewy where these layers meet. The rich cinnamon aroma that strengthens as one chews expresses the delightful heart of this dour-looking morsel. 

Where to buy: At any of the brand’s stores, including those close to Komagome, Sugamo and Nishi-nippori stations.

Marusei Butter Biscuits

Although Western in nature, Marusei Butter Biscuits make this list because they are made in Hokkaido by the Rokkatei confectionery company using local flour and butter – and because their sheer decadence makes them impossible to ignore. The cream at their center mixes together butter, white chocolate and rum-soaked raisins to create a melt-in-the-mouth indulgence that weighs in at 165 kilocalories a biscuit – about the same as a slice of bread. The soft cookies that make up the “sandwich” use a Rokkatei-original flour that makes them slightly grainy, but it’s the generous serving of juicy raisins among the cream that gives this treat its satisfying bite and rich balance. This one should make it to everyone’s Japanese treats bucket list — it’s simply that good!  

Where to buy: Via Rokkatei’s online shop (in Japanese); select food stores and Hokkaido goods store, such as the one at the Ikebukuro Shopping Park (ISP).

Yatsuhashi Cookies

Good old Kyoto brings us the much simpler treat of the yatsuhashi cookie. These tile-shaped bites are made from rice flour, sugar and cinnamon. That mixture is steamed, then flattened and baked to create a crunchy and mildly sweet treat that is rich in the flavor and aroma of cinnamon. These are kid-friendly and provide a good workout for one’s jaw. A longer version in the same curved shape is also available.The word ‘yatsuhashi’ is also used to describe the more modern and non-baked version of this dough, which is more accurately known as nama-yatsuhashi, or raw yatsuhashi, as well as a bean paste-filled, triangular version of that.

Where to buy: At most grocery and select food stores for around ¥200 for a 150-gram bag. 

What are your favorite coffee-time Japanese sweets? Share your top Japanese treats in the comments!