What do you eat when you are sick?
Yakuzen - medicinal foods
Last week, I was felled by something so pernicious that it felt like my life was teetering on a pyramid of Tylenol, cough drops, and Robitussin cough syrup. What do you eat when your appetite has flown the coop?
Zenzai - azuki bean soup with toasted mochi. Served with a side of salted kombu.
When I was growing up, okayu (unseasoned rice porridge served with umeboshi) and grated apples were the staples of a bedridden day. So on Day 1, I cobbled together some okayu (cold rice in a pot, cover with water, simmer). On Day 2, Michiko dropped off a container of zenzai filled with shiratama dango1.
Zenzai v. Shiruko
Zenzai is (in Kansai, where my family is from) sweetened azuki bean soup made from unstrained anko (azuki beans cooked down into a sweetened jam)2. Zenzai is often served with dango or mochi floating inside. In Kanto (and perhaps in other parts of Japan too, please comment!), this same soup is called shiruko3. Zenzai in Kanto is not a soup but a dessert of unstrained anko topped with mochi or other toppings4.
In tropical Okinawa, zenzai is a mountain of shaved ice flavored with kintokimame (a type of lima bean) sweetened with black sugar. Okinawa definitely wins.
Medicinal foods - yakuzenshoku
Zenzai was never a sick food growing up, more of a dessert, but Michiko brought me her version of zenzai because she had packed it full of yakuzenshoku - the foods attributed medicinal properties in traditional Chinese medicine. Her zenzai is fermented with mineral rich sake kasu and further fortified with Medjool dates, goji berries, and chestnuts to maximize nutritional variety. Her shiratama dango are made with extra silken tofu.
Eggs for mental stability! says Instagram
Yakuzen is a popular buzzword of late, and Japanese recipes and restaurant menus are clamoring to include foods that are especially nutritive like:
Kuzu (arrowroot powder)5
My layman’s understanding of yakuzen is that foods fit into one of five taste categories and one of six energy levels (i.e., cooling, warming, chilling) and that introducing the appropriate foods during the right seasons will be beneficial to one’s overall health and beauty. I’d also say that while there are resources that educate as to the specific benefits of certain foods on mental and physical health, the way the term is used often in Japan is akin to that of superfoods in America. The focus is on incorporating as many types of yakuzenshoku as possible.
How to make zenzai and dango
I am not familiar with how Michiko ferments her anko using sake kasu6, but you can easily make a non-fermented version using your rice cooker and sweeten it (as is traditional) with sugar. I wrote about the rice cooker anko that has been so popular with Japanese cook recently for Saveur. The chewy dango are a simple mix of silken tofu and rice flour that I also described in Bon Appetit. I have some leeway here though to make some additional comments:
For the Zenzai:
Prepare your anko using a rice cooker (soak 1/2 cup beans for 8-12 hours, rinse, cook well covered with a generous 1 cup of water and sweeten with 1/4 sugar, or to taste and a pinch of salt). Alternatively, open a can of prepared anko.
Depending on how hungry you are, add about 1/4 cup 1/2 cup of anko to your pot and covered with about an equivalent amount of water to thin it to a soup consistency. Heat, you’re done. You can add dates, chestnuts, some toasted mochi, or prepare some dango.
For the Dango:
Mix equal quantities by volume of shiratamako7 rice flour and silken tofu until you have a supple dough. Roll into teaspoon size balls and cook in a simmering pot of water until they float. Cook an additional 1-5 minutes.
Soaking your azuki beans longer is better for anko. You want the beans to thoroughly crush at the nudge of a spoon. If you do not thoroughly soak your azuki, you might need to cook them for an additional cycle with more water. Once your beans are softened and sweetened, you just need to add them to a pot with enough water to reach your desired consistency. I like a thinner zenzai so add more water.
I stipulated an equal 100 grams of silken tofu to a 100 grams of shiratamako (a specific rice flour), but Michiko advises that going slightly heavier on the tofu will yield a softer dango. She also boils her dango for up to five minutes after they float, which means that they stay supple even after a day or two in the fridge.
Some more writing from me
BA posted my how-to guide on shirataki, one of my favorite foods. They are a slippery (and virtually zero calorie) noodle that absorb the flavor of whatever you cook them in without losing their chew.
Having finished the drop off, I’m back to eating cereal.
As it’s not much more than sweetened red bean that’s been thinned with water, it’s unsurprisingly one of the original Japanese treats. One origin story points to the monk Ikkyu Soujun (active during the early 15th century) being served the dish and exclaiming “zenzai” (delightful - a Japanese pronunciation of the Sanskrut “sadhu”). Another explanation pins it to the “jinzai” mochi served during Shinto festivals in Shimane prefecture.
In Kansai (and it seems Kyushu), shiruko refers to the soup made from strained koshian (this is also available in cans from vending machines during the winter).
Wikipedia has one line about how this is because western Japan did not properly communicate its traditions to the east. This was absolutely added by someone from Kansai. Not me, though.
Kuzu is a type of arrowroot plant that in Japan is most associated with Yoshino, Nara. The root is ground into a powder that lends its clear starchiness to many Japanese sweets and is said to be a very warming food. Kuzu is rich in saponins and polyphenols, among other things.
Sake kasu (sake lees) are the byproduct of sake production and are extremely rich in minerals. It is used by home cooks to ferment rice porridge into sweet and probiotic foods like amazake and to pickle vegetables.
There is a stunning variety of rice flours that are used in various applications. The consistencies depend on the type of rice used and whether the rice has been steamed before grinding (among other things).