Crazy over chestnuts, Japan’s favourite autumn treat

An unripe chestnut on the tree, with its prickly green shell. – Pictures by CK Lim
An unripe chestnut on the tree, with its prickly green shell. – Pictures by CK Lim

TOKYO, Dec 10 — It’s now autumn in Japan, and time for everything chestnut, which is a seasonal delicacy. Known as kuri in Japanese, the local chestnut has a slightly bitter flavour when raw so they are mostly consumed after roasting, steaming or macerating to create candied chestnuts (kuri no shibukawani).

The humble chestnut’s journey begins in the chestnut orchards, found all over from Hokkaido to Kumamoto. Unripe chestnuts hang from branches with their prickly green shell, slowly darkening until autumn arrives and they fall to the ground, ready for harvesting.

Cooling roasted chestnuts (yaki-guri)
Cooling roasted chestnuts (yaki-guri)
Once cut in half, the roasted chestnuts reveal their golden, buttery flesh
Once cut in half, the roasted chestnuts reveal their golden, buttery flesh

The first chestnut dish you’d encounter in Japan is usually yaki-guri or roasted chestnuts. Yaki-guri can be found everywhere from street markets, such as Ameyoko-cho between the Ueno and Okachimachi train stations, to popular depachikas (basement food halls in departmental stores) including the glamorous Isetan Shinjuku and Tobu Ikebukuro, Japan’s largest depachika.

Typically a big clay pot (donabe) or cast iron pot (tetsunabe) is filled with small stones that are heated up. Whole chestnuts are added and slowly roasted. This way they are cooked to the core when peeled. Once cut in half, the roasted chestnuts reveal their golden, buttery flesh. Truly, does anything smell more heavenly than freshly roasted chestnuts?

Another way of cooking chestnuts in Japan is by soaking them in water overnight to soften their skins, draining and then boiling them in a pan of hot water. A third method involves steaming the chestnuts together with rice — especially freshly harvested rice, another autumnal ingredient — to create kurigohan, a rice dish that’s absolutely divine with its nutty aroma.

Many market stalls in Tokyo offer various snacks and sweets made with chestnuts during autumn (left). Waguriya in Yanaka Ginza is famed for their chestnut desserts (right)
Many market stalls in Tokyo offer various snacks and sweets made with chestnuts during autumn (left). Waguriya in Yanaka Ginza is famed for their chestnut desserts (right)
The deep, nutty aroma of kuri kinton (chestnut purée) is balanced with the fresh fragrance of ripe strawberries
The deep, nutty aroma of kuri kinton (chestnut purée) is balanced with the fresh fragrance of ripe strawberries

There are kuri mushipan, Japanese steamed cakes filled with chestnut paste, whipped cream and the occasional nugget of candied chestnut. Soft and fluffy, with a hidden treasure within, these are best eaten hot.

For a pastry that lasts longer away from the shop, try kuri manju which are filled with a mixture of sweetened chestnut and bean pastes. Usually round or oval in shape, some are cleverly made to resemble a chestnut — a simple modification the Japanese find immensely kawaii (“cute”).

Some shops even offer autumn wagashi platters, complete with candied chestnuts and skewered kuri dango (grilled mochi dumplings with chestnut paste). Entire bowls of chestnut goodness are available too: peeled whole roasted chestnuts and kurimushi yokan (adzuki jelly riddled with chunks of steamed chestnuts) are paired with adzuki beans and chewy mochi dumplings.

For more refined kuri treats, head over to Waguriya in Yanaka Ginza. This tiny shop in the popular shopping street is famed for their wagashi, which all feature chestnuts in one form or another. Indeed its name simply means “Japanese chestnut shop” and the décor is quite traditional and minimalist; the focus is on their chestnut desserts.

An autumn wagashi platter with kuri no shibukawani (candied chestnut) and skewered kuri dango (grilled mochi dumplings with chestnut paste)
An autumn wagashi platter with kuri no shibukawani (candied chestnut) and skewered kuri dango (grilled mochi dumplings with chestnut paste)
Chestnut bowl: Golden chestnut and kurimushi yokan (adzuki jelly with chestnuts) are paired with adzuki beans and mochi dumplings
Chestnut bowl: Golden chestnut and kurimushi yokan (adzuki jelly with chestnuts) are paired with adzuki beans and mochi dumplings

Nearly all of Waguriya’s offerings include kuri kinton (chestnut purée), either piped into vermicelli-like threads or cut into perfectly rectangular slabs to be enjoyed as is.

Their signature dish is their monburan’aisu that is fashioned after the classic French dessert Mont-Blanc aux marrons (itself named after the snow-capped mountain Mont Blanc, which it resembles). Swirls of chestnut mousse are served on a pool of adzuki beans, topped with peeled roasted chestnuts.

The deeply satisfying aroma of the kuri kinton — available all year round at Waguriya — is also balanced with the other fruits, such as the fresh fragrance of ripe strawberries or the opulent sweetness of highly prized musk melons. Only Japanese ingredients are used: cream from Hokkaido, fresh milk from Iwate and adzuki beans from Tokachi. The kuri, naturally, is 100 per cent Japanese too.

Monburan’aisu: Swirls of chestnut mousse on pool of adzuki beans, topped with peeled roasted chestnuts
Monburan’aisu: Swirls of chestnut mousse on pool of adzuki beans, topped with peeled roasted chestnuts

Whether you fancy a delicate pastry adorned with chestnut mousse or the simplicity of a plain old roasted chestnut, autumn’s the season to go crazy over chestnuts in Japan!

Waguriya

9-14, 3chome, Yanaka, Taito-ku, Tokyo, Japan

Open: Tue-Sun 11am-7pm, Mon closed

Tel: +81-3-5834-2243

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