If you’ve ever wandered around the basement food floors of Japanese department stores, you’re bound to have seen a wide range of desserts from western delicacies to traditional Japanese sweets. Precious cakes, beautiful gift boxes, and tea cookies each individually wrapped to perfection. Ohh, the temptation.
Back when I first moved to Japan and was at my heaviest weight, desserts were always on my mind and the Japanese cafes and department stores made them hard to ignore. But to my pleasant surprise, I found that many Japanese sweets are made with ingredients that have amazing health benefits and are low in calories and fat. The desserts I’ll share with you do contain sugar (they are desserts, after all), but these particular desserts have health benefits that range from lowering the impact of that sugar on your blood sugar levels, to improving your digestion. What a win!
Here are six ingredients and common desserts made with them to keep an eye out for if you’re health conscious.
Kanten, also know as agar agar, is a hardening agent used to make jellos. This calorie-free seaweed is clear in color, high in fiber, and contains calcium and iron. Japanese women love to eat this when they’re looking to shed some weight but still have a sweet tooth, since it’s filling, calorie-free, and tasty. You can find kanten in fruit jellos or in traditional Japanese sweets such as yokan (羊羹), which is a jello made with red bean paste. This article has a few recipes for making your own kanten coffee jelly, Matcha Soy Milk Pudding and Blueberry Rose Jelly.
Kuzu is an amazing thickening agent that’s high in fiber. It’s also known to reduce high blood pressure, regulate blood sugar, and relieve tension such as in migraines and muscle cramps. One of the most common Japanese desserts using kuzu is called kuzukiri (くずきり) and looks like long clear noodles dipped in a cold sweet “soup.” It’s another filling dessert that’s amazing for your digestive system. You can find simple kuzukiri desserts in most convenience stores and Japanese style cafes.
You can also find kuzu in some puddings since it gives it a nice thick texture. One of my favorite vegan puddings is from Trueberry, which has branches in Omotesando, Hiroo and Nakameguro. They have a white sesame kuzu pudding that is truly and afternoon delight.
Black sesame (黒ごま)
Another amazing ingredient that’s considered a superfood by many is black sesame. In eastern holistic health, black sesame seeds are considered warming to the body which is really important for healthy blood circulation. They’re also high in fiber, vitamin B, iron, and magnesium.
If you see black sesame ice cream as an option at the parlor, definitely give it a try. It has a wonderful “nutty” taste that counterbalances the sweetness of the ice cream. Plus, since ice cream is cold, it’s great to have some warming properties from the sesame seeds themselves. As for more Japanese sweets, you’ll find black sesame in puddings — another delight with a great texture.
Azuki beans (あずき豆)
We can’t have a list of healthy desserts in Japan without including Azuki beans! These red beans are a Japanese favorite and are high fiber, and low calories so they really fill you up. The beans are also high in protein which helps slow down sugar absorption so you aren’t left with a big spike in blood sugar.
Azuki beans are found in many traditional desserts, especially daifuku (大福) which is a round soft ball of mochi (pounded rice) filled with red bean paste. You can typically choose between tsubuan (where not all beans are blended) or koshian (where the bean paste is smooth). If you want to take it one step further in your health, try the green colored yomogi daifuku (pictured above) — the outside is called kusamochi which literally translates to “grass mochi.” The ingredient is Japanese mugwort leaves.
Toraya Cafe in Shinjuku and Aoyama, is another favorite of mine as they use the red beans in western cakes. If you get a chance to stop by, try their chocolate fondant cake that is made with red bean paste. They also sell red bean jams and other delights worth trying and gifting.
Soybeans are an amazing source of protein and fiber and are low cholesterol. They’re especially great if you’re looking for a dairy replacement. You’ll likely find controversial opinions on whether or not soy is truly healthy, but I personally find soy to be a good source of nutrition, especially since Japanese soybeans are better quality with less processing than the ones feared in areas such as the US (the source of most controversy).
As long as you’re using it as a dairy replacement, the options for tofu-based desserts in Japan are endless. Some of my favorites you can find here in Japan are tofu puddings and soy cheesecakes. Sweets Tofu (pictured above) is a popular tofu pudding which you can find at most supermarkets for just over a ¥100. It tastes exactly like custard pudding but is so much healthier!
Last but not least is kinako, a light brown colored powder made from soybeans. Of course, it has all the health benefits of soy beans such as isoflavones, protein, fiber, and calcium. It has kind of a nutty flavor and you’ll often find it sprinkled on top of Japanese desserts. You can even combine it with some other ingredients mentioned such as kanten or kuzumochi to get an extra punch of nutrition. Like in the picture above, it can be used as a topping on kakigori (shaved ice), yogurt and even a toast, if you wish! For ideas on how to make your own kinako dessert at home, see this article.
If you’re looking to improve your health but can’t quite kick that sweet tooth just yet, then definitely look for desserts like these or use these ingredients in your favorite sweets. The next time you hit that department store food floor, enjoy the flavors and health benefits. Your body and sweet tooth will thank you later!
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