Yokan (adzuki-bean jelly) (羊羹)

Yokan, in general, is a Japanese confection which is made by jellifying bean jam, mainly made from adzuki beans, with Japan agar. There are two kinds of yokan depending on the amount of agar: Neri-yokan (yokan made of pasted adzuki beans) and Mizu-yokan (yokan containing less agar and more water than neri-yokan).


Originally, yokan (羊羹) was Chinese broth (羹) of sheep (羊), as the Chinese characters stand for. The broth made by boiling mutton becomes jellied due to gelatin of the meat as it gets cold.
羹' is usually pronounced (the Han reading) as 'ko (kau).'
Kan' is the Tang reading derived from early-modern Chinese, and is close to the tone of Putonghua (Chinese common language) 'kon (geng1).'

It was brought to Japan by Zen monks between Kamakura period and Muromachi period. Because of the prohibition of meat-eating in the religious precepts (five commandments) of the Zen sect, they used adzuki beans instead of mutton for a vegetarian dish. It is said that this was the original form of Japanese yokan. According to another theory, when a Chinese confection shaped like a liver of sheep was brought to Japan, the letter '肝' in the name '羊肝こう' was mistaken for '羹', and they began to call it '羊羹' ("Kiyushoran", an encyclopedic book on cultures).

Early yokan was mushi-yokan (steamed yokan) made by mixing adzuki beans with wheat flour or powdered arrowroot. Imo-yokan (yokan containing sweet potato paste) and Uiro (a sort of sweetened steamed cake made of rice powder) were derived from mushi-yokan. In those days, sugar was very valuable because it was not produced domestically. The yokan made with sugar was called 'sato-yokan' (sugar yokan) to distinguish from ordinary yokan made with amazura (traditional sweetener commonly used in the past). In the 17th century, the production of brown sugar began in the Ryuku Kingdom, Amami Islands and other areas, and then the sugar was brought to Japan's mainland by Satsuma clan and became a common sweetener for yokan. Since then, the production method with amazura has become obsolete.

Neri-yokan was originated by 岡本善右衛門 of Surugaya (confectionery shop) in Wakayama City in 1589. Neri-yokan was made by adding bean paste into agar to set in the shape of a pole. Thus yokan became an original confection of Japan. But, some people object to this view. Kyozan SANTO (younger brother of Kyoden SANTO) wrote in "Kumo no itomaki" (essay literature) in 1844 that neri-yokan was first made in the late 18th century by 喜太郎, a confectioner in Edo, and some experts support his opinion.

In the night of October 19, 1648, a warimoto (a village official) of Iwamurada, Saku-gun, Shinshu, 篠澤佐五右衛門良重 presented yokan to Inaba no kami (the governor of Inaba province), the lord of Komoro-jo Castle. It is mentioned in the document which belongs to his descendant 篠澤明剛 and is put on view to the public in Saku City Mochizuki Museum of History and Folklore.

In the Edo period, neri-yokan reached at its height. Fujimura yokan in Hongo, Edo, and many other well-established stores were born in this period. On the other hand, traditional yokan was called mushi-yokan. Among mushi-yokan, inexpensive ones which contain less adzuki beans and sugar are called Decchi-yokan (apprentice's yokan).

In 1861, mizu-yokan, containing less agar and more water, was first made by Edo Seijuken. Other new types of yokan such as Kingyoku-kan (transparent jelly containing agar and sugar), Awayuki (confection of meringue jellified with agar), and Mizore-kan (jelly containing agar, sugar and glutinous rice flour) also appeared in this period.

In addition to them, various types of yokan using a variety of local products can be seen everywhere in Japan. They are popular as a souvenir and a food served with tea.

In the People's Republic of China, sweet Yankan (pronounced as yánggēng in Chinese, written with the same Chinese characters as yokan), which contain adzuki beans and chestnuts just like Japanese yokan, are made and sold in Tianjin and Beijing. Some kinds of yokan (yankan) unique to China are also made and sold, which are flavored with fruits such as a thorn apple, peach, apple, and so on.

Decchi Yokan
Among mushi-yokan as an ordinary type of yokan in those days, inexpensive ones made of less adzuki beans and sugar were called decchi-yokan.
The name of decchi-yokan is said to have come from a sales talk: 'It's cheap enough for decchi (an apprentice) to buy as a souvenir when they go back home for a visit.'
Today, they are still sold under the name of 'decchi-yokan' or 'mushi-yokan' as a staple product of small Japanese confectionery shops in Kyoto City and southern part of Shiga Prefecture. Many of decchi-yokan contain sprinkled chestnuts, Dainagon or other Japanese confectionery. The tradition and techniques of the shop can be seen in the yokan, so they have many fans as hidden, but established sweets. The reason why yokan are covered with plastic or paper printed with a bamboo-sheath pattern is because of the tradition of mushi-yokan.


adzuki bean

Japanese chestnut

sweet potato

Japanese persimmon

- there are two ways to use: simply jellify persimmon jam with agar, or jellify it after mixing with white bean jam.


Japanese mint

- as a flavor ingredient.

- salty yokan (yokan containing a little amount of salt)

Words and Phrases Associated with Yokan

yokan color: when blackish clothes fade and get tinged with red, the color is called 'yokan color.'

Yoru no ume (night plum): the most famous yokan under this name is 'Ogura-yokan Yoru no ume (registered trademark)', a representative product of Toraya Kurokawa (commonly known as Toraya (Akasaka, Minato Ward, Tokyo), the main store located in Akasaka). It is named by comparing the adzuki beans at the cut end to white plum blossoms in the shadows of night. Ogura-yokan of Toraya is the neri-yokan which are characterized by the amount and hardness of adzuki beans: they are made of a little less beans than ordinary ones in number, and the beans are soft. They are kneaded for three days. The name 'Yoru no ume' is used by not only Toraya but also Surugaya and Tsuruyahachiman (confectionery shops) by common consent.

It's like a cross between a gem and a pagodite: a phrase written in Soseki NATSUME's "Kusamakura" (novel) to express the beauty of yokan.
The phrase is a part of well-known passage of the novel, following the description of yokan: 'No matter how you look at it, it's a work of art.'

[Original Japanese]