What is Yatsuhashi?
Yatsuhashi is said to have been invented by a Kyoto confectioner in the late 17th century. Its name is derived from the shape of the confection, which resembles a bridge called Yatsuhashi in Kyoto. It was originally made with rice flour and sugar, but nowadays, many variations are available, including matcha-flavored, strawberry-flavored, and even chocolate-flavored-yatsuhashi.
In addition to the traditional soft and chewy version of yatsuhashi, there is also a baked version called yatsuhashi senbei. These thin, crispy rice crackers are made by baking the yatsuhashi dough until it is crisp and then cutting it into small squares. Cinnamon is the most common flavor, but other flavors, including chocolate and green tea, are also available.
Yatsuhashi is famous as a souvenir and a snack to enjoy with tea or as a dessert after a meal. It is a simple but satisfying treat that generations of Japanese have loved.
The Origin of Yatsuhashi
That’s an interesting legend about the origin of yatsuhashi! However, another popular theory suggests that the sweet was first created during the Edo period (1603-1868) when wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) became more popular. It is said that a confectioner named Chogetsu-ya discovered that by mixing cinnamon with leftover mochi (sticky rice cake) and roasting it, he could create a delicious and fragrant snack. This snack was eventually named yatsuhashi after the famous bridge in Kyoto.
Regardless of the origin story, yatsuhashi has become a beloved, iconic sweet in Japan, and many visitors to Kyoto seek it as a tasty souvenir of their travels.
The History of Yatsuhashi
At first, Kengyo’s cracker was similar to a typical senbei rice cracker, firm and somewhat complicated but much thinner due to the baking process. Baking also caused the rice flour mixture to curve, resulting in a hacker that resembled the curvature of Kengyo’s koto instrument, hence the sweet’s name. Vendors initially sold this yatsuhashi-like baked cracker to visitors and pilgrims approaching the famous Shogoin Buddhist temple in the northeastern part of Kyoto. They quickly became known as Shogoin yatsuhashi. People enjoyed the cracker’s sweet flavor and crunchy texture and would often have more than one.
Yatsuhashi became a popular souvenir for Japanese visitors to Kyoto after 1900, with merchants setting up stalls or standing outside the train station in Kyoto to sell small packages of yatsuhashi to visitors from all parts of Japan. Baked yatsuhashi is durable and can last up to three months, like rice crackers, making it a practical and tasty sweet in the premodern era.
Baked yatsuhashi was initially handmade and cooked on a hot plate but only mass-produced by machine in the 1970s. Despite this recent development, the tradition of making yatsuhashi by hand has been around since the late 1600s, leaving a lasting impact on Kyoto’s confectionary culture. Some famous yatsuhashi makers include Izutsu Yatsuhashi, which has been producing the treat for over 200 years, and the elder statesman of the business, Shogoin Yatsuhashi, which has been around for over 300 years.
Another variety of yatsuhashi, called nama yatsuhashi, has been available for some time. This version is made without baking the rice flour mixture, resulting in a soft and doughy texture. While it used to spoil quickly without refrigeration, in the 1960s, it was wrapped around sweet red bean paste to create a longer-lasting treat known as anti-name yatsuhashi. This variety has become extremely popular, and yatsuhashi makers have continued experimenting with different flavorings to create a wide range of products.
The original yatsuhashi cracker was cinnamon-flavored and baked, but nowadays, you can find it coated in chocolate. Recently, a variation has emerged where crushed yatsuhashi is mixed with chocolate or green tea flavors and formed into bite-sized biscuits.
Although the history and tradition of baked yatsuhashi are fascinating, the raw yatsuhashi is mind-boggling in terms of its ever-expanding variety of flavors, tastes, textures, and shapes. In addition to the traditional cinnamon flavor, nama yatsuhashi is available in a plethora of other flavors such as ume (plum), momo (peach), matcha (green tea), lemon, kuro goma (black sesame), mango, ramune (a type of old-fashioned soda), Ichigo (strawberry), banana, sakura (cherry blossom), Ringo (apple), milk, blueberry, and chocolate. I’ve even stumbled upon an Earl Grey tea-flavored yatsuhashi.
Ume yatsuhashi boasts a delectable sweet and sour filling made from plum paste. It is typically wrapped in the white dough to showcase the pinkish plum paste, which imparts a delicate image and is a popular choice in winter. For a summer treat, momo yatsuhashi is a close cousin with its peach filling, though it is naturally sweeter. Meanwhile, Macha yatsuhashi offers a unique twist with its green tea flavor. People often add a sprinkle of green tea powder to enhance its already alluring appearance, making it a feast for the eyes and taste buds.
Lemon yatsuhashi boasts a refreshing and vibrant flavor that is incredibly alluring. My favorite version is Kuro Goma yatsuhashi, which has a rustic appearance and a rich, deep, and deceptively roasted black sesame flavor, making it possibly the most visually stunning of all yatsuhashi. An excellent addition to the range is the raw sugar and kinako (roasted soybean) flavored yatsuhashi.
Moreover, the fillings of these sweets have evolved. While red bean paste remains the most popular choice, sellers have introduced other fillers such as real strawberries, chocolate, and green tea have been introduced. One confectioner even offers a green tea paste wrapped in a standard raw yatsuhashi and a green tea yatsuhashi version wrapped in traditional red bean paste.
In addition, the shapes of this flavored yatsuhashi have also changed over the years. While the triangular-shaped sachets remain popular, yatsuhashi can now be shaped as little bags, rolled sticks, and even flowers with matching colors and flavors. Rolled bars are frequently flavored with chocolate, and there is even a yatsuhashi cake made of green tea ganache and black soybean paste that holds together a green tea raw yatsuhashi and green tea cake dough. Green tea and yatsuhashi are a match made in heaven.