Dec
04

Step back in time for a 1,000 year old Japanese sweet treat

December 04, 2019
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Katie Lockhart
Freelance writer @
Find Your Happy Plate

At Itakuraya, a small shop in Tokyo, black and white family photos and awards hang across from a counter covered in ningyoyaki. Ningyoyaki, also spelled ningyo-yaki, is one of Japan’s most popular sugary treats. Made from a sponge cake, it has a sweet surprise in the middle—red bean paste. 

For over 100 years, the Fujii family has been perfecting their recipe for ningyoyaki. Today, the fourth generation owner Yoshito sits cross-legged in the back rhythmically spooning batter into cast-iron Shichifukujin molds and squeezing red bean paste called azuki inside. Below him is a gas-burning fire, crisping the cakes to perfection.

Shichifukujin are Japan’s seven lucky gods, the god of money, happiness, beauty, longevity, success, cleverness, and development, the only Japanese god. But as Itakuraya, they don’t make the god of happiness; instead the seventh god is your smile.

The Fujii family's little ningyoyaki shop in Tokyo. | Photo by Patrick Sgro

Much like the snack, the shop is like something out of Edo-era Japan. It’s old school and unpretentious, yet known for serving up some of the best ningyoyaki in Tokyo. It’s not a traditional street food in the sense that it isn’t physically made on the street, something hard to find in Japan, especially Tokyo. Japanese culture prioritizes respect and cleanliness and discourages eating while walking or making a mess on the street. So this little shop tucked in off the street is the closest you’ll get to a street food stand.

What makes this simple snack stand out? The dough is made of high-quality honey, flour, egg, condensed milk and rice wine. The red sweet beans are from Tokage, in Hokkaido and mixed with sugar and water. Plus, they’ve been working on their recipe for over 100 years. But Yoshito has a more humble reasoning for their popularity. “The people appreciate that the neighborhood is named Ningyocho, which is similar to ningyoyaki so people like the similarity,” he says.

Check out Urban Adventures’ Made in Japan Shopping tour, where you can visit Itakuraya and sample ningyoyaki for yourself:

 

During our Urban Adventures Made in Japan Shopping tour visit, we’re invited past the noren, or the curtain door, to watch Yoshito make the popular snack. His motions are repetitive but elegant, something that comes with many days and hours of practice. Yoshito jokes that when he first started, he burned them more than three times a day, but after three years he got used to it.

 

Ningyoyaki sweet Tokyo
Adding the all important filling to the ningyoyaki. | Photo by Patrick Sgro

After he scoops in the batter with a special spoon, Yoshito brushes off the scraps of sponge cake with a unique brush and shuts the specially iron carved stamps. Yoshito smiles and says the molds are very heavy, and like the recipe, they’re over 100-years-old.

Once he’s satisfied with the cook time, they’re ready to eat. We’re handed individually wrapped bites and asked which god we got as soon as we slip them out of the bag. I got the god of beauty. As I bit into the soft dough, I was surprised at how sweet it was. Although I’m not usually a red bean fan, the texture of the paste was a nice contrast against the fluffy warm dough. A word of warning, the paste is hot, so be careful not to burn your tongue.

This treat is especially popular in winter around the holiday season. During their busiest times, they work 14 hours, beat 300 eggs and sell 2,000 ningyoyaki a day. One costs 100 yen and can be eaten up to three days after baking. Many people opt for a box of five, ten, or even 15 so that no matter what, all the gods are on their side.

How to find it: It’s a quick one-minute walk from Ningyo-cho Station on the Hibiya Line.

What to order: A box of five or ten. These little snacks are addictive.

When to go: They are open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. or until they’re sold out.

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