Itadakimasu! – 蕨餅 Warabimochi
The art of 和菓子 Wagashi making is one of the finer elements of Japanese culinary culture and for me, it is the epitome of its levels of exquisiteness and artistry of its gastronomic heritage. Most wagashi used a grain-based starch as the main ingredient, usually glutinous rice or Japanese short-grained rice, but 蕨餅 Warabimochi is an interesting form of Wagashi using starch extracted from the roots and lower stems of the bracken fern instead. It is an extremely popular snack in the Kansai region and I remember first tasting it as part of the dessert served with a Kyoto-styled Tofu meal when we were in Osaka 2 years back. The texture was unique, somewhat chewy with quite a bit of bite yet soft and delicate at the same time. So it is quite difficult to describe but remains memorable until today.
Warabimochi is very minimalistic in its composition and presentation, exuding a somewhat zen-like aura. It is commonly enjoyed as an after-meal dessert （which is what we had) or simply as a tea-time snack on its own.
蕨餅粉 Warabimochiko, already processed thus saving us the trouble of working through it from scratch, i.e. peeling and grinding the bracken fern root and stem to extract the starch, a process which is somewhat similar to our ways of processing tapioca starch here in Southeast Asia. The starchy concoction from the sap extract is then left to settle, after which the sap layer is decanted and the remaining gooey starchy sediment left to dry until all that remains is a “cake” of powdered starch which is then broken up and packaged. Most folks in Japan do not extract and process warabimochiko from scratch, let alone knowing how to it. And that leaves little to say for the rest of us gaijins!
The cooking process is also quite a no-brainer. All that is required is a non-stick pan and patience. Lots of patience as it takes a bit of time to work the starch mixture until it is ready. The final product should be translucent and tacky. It will stick to any dry surface with great ease and hence the use of a non–stick pan is important.
Warabimochi is traditionally enjoyed with 黑蜜 kuromitsu made from just dissolving 黑糖 kurozatou with some water. Typically, Japanese kurozatou comes from Okinawa which lies to the far south of the Japanese archipelago and probably the few places in Japan where sugarcane can be grown. The process of making kurozatou involves extracting sugar cane juice from the fibrous pulp and subsequently boiling it down until a black and viscous layer is left, which is allowed to cool and crystallise before chopping into small blocks like those in the above photo. Kurozatou carries a very, very intense aroma of unrefined sugar and the flavours are mind-blowing, being deeper and darker than most other jaggery-like sugars I’d tasted. There should be a hint of bitterness lingering which gives it more dimension compared to some other run-in-the-mill forms which may be merely sweet. Kuromitsu has a treacle-like consistency and thus, any molasses or jaggery would probably work as a substitute if kurozatou is not available. Go for the darkest version you could find.
Warabimochi sets well at room temperature but if preferred, one could refrigerate it to accelerate the process. But do remember to cover it with clingfilm but at the same time, ensure that the plastic wrap does not touch the surface of the warabimochi or it would stick onto the warabimochi for sure! One way to resolve this when handling the set product is to wet your hands, chopping board and even knife with a bit of water. This helps to ease the build-up of surface tension preventing the warabimochi from sticking! Quite amazing how far a little dabbling of water goes!
蕨餅 Warabimochi Recipe (serves 2)
80g Warabimochi-ko 蕨餅粉 (1 packet)
a pinch of salt (optional)
a tbsp sugar (optional)
2 generous tbsp kinako powder きなこ (Japanese toasted soya bean powder)
2 generous tbsp kuromitsu 黑蜜 (from dissolving kurozatou 黑糖 in some water)
Add warabimochi-ko and water into a mixing bowl and stir thoroughly until all the starch bits have been completely reconstituted. Add salt and/or sugar if using (I omitted the salt and added sanontou 三温糖)
Pour the mixture into a non-stick pan and start to stir the mixture over low heat using a wooden or heatproof siilicon spatula. Etch the bottom and sides of the pan periodically to prevent the mixture from cooking and solidifying in these regions prematurely. Over time, the mixture would thick and begin to coagulate.
Keep etching the base of the pan. As the water evaporates slowly, the initially gooey mixture would begin to take on a more “solid form” and begin to become sticky and tacky instead. Continue to work on the mixture, ensuring that all sides are uniformly heated. The final mixture should look translucent. Mine has an obvious brownish hue from the sanontou added.
Pour the mixture into a heatproof container and leave to cool down and set at room temperature. Chill it in the fridge after the mixture has cooled down to firm it up.
To cut the block of warabimochi, first wet knife, chopping board and hands with a bit of water. Cut into small cuboid-like chunks.