"Shigaragi" - A Requiem for Lost Summer
Summer is here.
Summer is here in Osaka, and it is here by the forgotten Deiri-bashi (“in-and-out bridge”) – an old bridge over a buried waterway – while the world rushes by above on the busy, elevated Hanshin Expressway. The summer arrives quietly, without fanfare or twittering, to a small store called Deiribashi Kintsubaya. Neither dictated by the sun nor calculated by the meteorologists, it begins each year after the Golden Week at the beginning of May, and it ends abruptly and arbitrarily in September. That is the summer at Deiribashi Kintsubaya.
Deiribashi Kintsubaya began its life, selling its namesake, “kintsuba” – a small, square snack of sweet “tsubu-an” (chunky azuki beans stuffing or paste), lightly battered and seared. It is designed as a finger food, so that it can be popped into the mouth with one hand. Nothing fancy, but the earthy sweetness with a slightly salty undertone was handy and for the laborers working on the waterway to quickly replenish the lost calories – a red bean equivalent of a “SOYJOY” (an “AZUKIJOY” if you wish). (Note: The “common” wagashi tend to have salt, like a bit of salt in cookies and pies to bring out the flavors; as opposed to “higher” wagashi, which does not and typically uses strained azuki bean paste called “koshi-an.”)
Kintsuba is available all-year around since, after all, it is the very name of the shop, but Deiribashi Kintsubaya also has a few tables (not a “café,” most definitively not), where the customers may enjoy traditional Japanese sweets. The dining-in menu is short and it changes semiannually – summer or winter. Neither spring nor autumn has found this shadowy corner of Osaka.
The menu is not only short, but it is also simple: after all, there is not much you can do with primarily three ingredients – tsubu-an, kinako (roasted soy bean flour) and glutinous rice cakes. Although the hot “zenzai” (a sweet red bean soup) with mochi in the winter is as satisfying as it can be to the body and soul, it is the “shigaragi” on the summer menu that makes the journey into the smoggy, sweltering heat bearable and even enjoyable because Deiribashi Kintsubaya is the only place in Osaka, or anywhere in Japan (or in the world for that matter), that sells “shigaragi” with tsubu-an and kinako.* (*There are three more shops which sell “shigaragi” in Osaka to be precise; however, two are related to Deiribashi Kintsubaya and one is an outpost of a Tokyo shop, so they do not count).
A single “shigaragi” looks like a white disc, about 4cm in diameter and 1.5cm thick. It is made of glutinous rice (a.k.a. as the sticky rice, which is not the eating rice, and definitely not the sushi rice), but neither is it a “mochi” – cooked first then hammered and pounded into a rice cake – nor a “shiratama” – made from ground rice flour then boiled.
Mochi used to be special: it was reserved for special occasions or rites; it is an ambrosia worthy to be offered to the gods. Usually done in the cold months of winter, steaming the glutinous rice and pounding the hot mass in a wooden mortar takes time and energy and lots of gluttonous determination, and the Japanese New Year is not complete without a double-deckered “kagami mochi.” The cold weather is convenient as mochi will harden and not get moldy so easily as to destroy all that hard work. Once hard and dry, it can be grilled or boiled, and to be served sweet or savory.
On the other hand, shiratama is for the summer – one of the most popular toppings for shaved ice or “an-mitsu” (a chilled dessert of azuki paste, agar-agar and fruits in syrup). Despite the fact that shiratama can be easily made from rice flour, it sadly has a very limited life since these little dough balls cannot be put into the refrigerator or they lose the very bouncy essence of shiratama. Whether it is mochi or shiratama, the takeaway is that cooked rice starch hardens in the cold temperature as the starch loses its viscosity and reverts to its former tough and brittle self. (Next time, try and eat the leftover Chinese takeaway rice in the fridge to experience it first hand.)
However, “shigaragi” is different: it is unique. It is the only rice cakes that survives in the cold and even, to certain extent, thrives in the inhospitable chill. As a matter of fact, be it kudzu (arrowroot) or warabi (bracken), all the summery and starchy wagashi generally and genetically suffer the same stiff fate in the cold treatment (those that do stay elastic are due to supera-natural means, where the use of additives or sugar retains the water in the starch, not unlike a shot of the hyaluronic acid to smooth out the dry and old skin). But, not our blackguard, “shigaragi.”
Making “shigaragi” is not that difficult. It is, after all, an innocent summer dessert, which used to be sold on the street by vendors, pushing carts and calling out a soulful “shigaragi-mochi, warabi-mochi” along with the sound of horn. Before making the “shigaragi,” one must make a long sac with cloth, into which soaked and broken glutinous rice is stuffed; then the stuffed sac is boiled in water. Once chilled, it is sliced into discs to be served with kinako. However, since this is the version at Deiribashi Kintsubaya, with loads of azuki beans lying around for the cash cow – kintsuba – they serve it half with kinako sugar and half with tsubu-an. (Note: In case if there is any doubt as to the difference, or even importance, between a chunky tsubu-san and a smooth koshi-an in the family of “anko” (meaning “stuffing” but usually refers to the azuki bean paste), the difference is real and vital: just like Skippy, there are avid supporters for either creamy or chunky and neither is likely to give in.)
That is the genetic make-up of “shigaragi,” but what is the big deal? If, it is no longer coveted, there must be something wrong with it, given the law of survival of the fittest. Is it the taste that has lost the mass appeal like “sweet meat,” which used to be quite literal than descriptive? Unlikely, as its taste is just like glutinous rice, regardless of having being broken and boiled; and just like mochi, “shigaragi” itself is plain, neither sweet nor salty; thus, quite amenable to suit any palate.
Then, is it the texture? A mochi is very chewy and elastic, which is like bouncing an elastic stress ball around in your mouth (this is a compliment, mind you); a shiratama is little harder and does not extend as much, more like chewing an putty rubber (again, this is a compliment); a dango (made of rice flour from the eating rice) has the least elasticity but slightly more viscousity with an inner hardness, like a small rubber ball that the kids like to bounce around; and an “ohagi” (covered by red bean paste or kinako) is just cooked and slightly smashed glutinous rice, so it does not have much resistance against the teeth since the molecules are not stranded together and remain granular. Therefore, the closest cousin will be “domyoji” – commonly used for “sakura mochi” (cherry blossom mochi – where a salty cherry leaf is used to wrap a pink mochi, which contains a koshi-an) in the Kansai area – as both use broken glutinous rice, but the similarity ends as fast as it begins because domyoji retains more water and thus is much lighter. (There are other types of rice-based sweets, but the point is, hopefully, already made to stick to your mind.)
So, what does “shigaragi” chew like then? It is certainly chewy, no doubt, and it provides a solid chew; not surprising since it is made of the glutinous rice. Nevertheless, since the rice grains were first broken and not pounded together, “shigaragi” is not sticky and it will not get stuck to the roof of the mouth or teeth at all. Pushing with a finger tip, it has the same exhilarating sinking but supported feel of the Magniflex mattress. To sum it up, the chewiness barometer sits between mochi and ohagi/domyoji; while in terms of bounciness, it is similar to dango, but not quite.
No, not quite like dango, or anything at all.
“Shigaragi” is indeed unique. Perhaps it is its idiosyncrasy that has led to its own decline. Like the dinosaurs. Or the dodos. When something is too distinct as to adapt or to be adopted, it dies. While it is true that wagashi in general has suffered a decline after the World War II, other Japanese sweets – dango, mochi and even ohagi – seem to have struggled on and have stridden into the 21st century. But not “shigaragi.” There are currently only a few shops in Hyogo that sell shigaragi in the summer (but without tsubu-an); and only one old man is still pedaling the trade in Awajishima, and he is over ninety years old.
So, what has happened to “shigaragi?”
We don’t know.
What will then happen to “shigaragi?”
We don’t know.
Just like the useless bridge over the dried waterway, which has given life and name to Deiribashi Kintsuba, the currents change climatically and politically, it too shall succumb to the tide of time. Following the footsteps of Nazca, Inca and Maya into oblivion, “shigaragi” will also disappear one day, and that day is sadly near.
However, the memory will live on.
Address: 3-4-10 Dojima, Kita-ku, Osaka 530-0003, Osaka Prefecture
Phone: +81 6-6451-3819
Closed on Sundays and holidays.