Japanese Confection Connection: Sabō Tsuruya

Sometimes, I get in a very wagashi mood. Lost in a jungle of fluffy pancakes this, cheese tart that, I long for the simplicity and sweetness that comes with these traditional Japanese confections. And so as I was walking downtown in search of something to satisfy my sudden wagashi craving, I was struck by a memory of a small wagashi-ya (Japanese confectionary) in Fukuromachi. I had passed it a dozen or so times on my way to something else, pausing to peek in at the display case maybe once or twice before hurrying on my way, and so I decided that today was the day to try Sabō Tsuruya [茶房つるや].

Sabō means a place to enjoy tea or even coffee, but in the case of this particular sabō, run by Kure-based Japanese confection maker Tsuruya Aki (founded in 1869), it’s a place to enjoy a variety of high quality, traditional wagashi. Inspired by traditional teahouse aesthetics, the store is bright and full of warm, natural colors. The space is divided between the showcase in the front, full of delicious looking manjū, monaka, and more, and the modest cafe space in the back. Upon taking my seat, I was given a lovely cup of tea and the menu, which contained a surprising volume of different sweets and sets from tempting freshly made warabi mochi to comfort food queen oshiruko, and even kakigōri, and would you look at that line up of parfaits? In the end, I went with the mitarashi dango parfait coupled with an azuki latte because if I’m going to have wagashi, I’m going full-tilt.

Mitarashi dango is wagashi canon: chewy little rice-based rounds coated in a sweet and savory glaze traditionally made of soy sauce, mirin, sugar, water, and starch. This glaze is unique from wagashi-ya to wagashi-ya, some adding katsuo-bushi stock, others focusing on the sweetness. Dango too vary from place to place in terms of density and texture depending on the ratio of different rice flours and water used in making them. So when my parfait arrives on a wooden tray, a steaming bowl of azuki latte sprinkled with kinako >(toasted soybean powder) beside it, I’m eager to see how Tsuruya’s mitarashi dango compares to my go-to wagashi-ya< (who I hope to introduce soon!).

The first thing that strikes me about the mitarashi dango is the texture: dense, but still with enough give when you bite down to give you that satisfying first-bite feeling. The glaze is that perfect balance between savory and sweet, each giving each other a good turn on your tongue. The soft serve is creamy with flavors of fresh milk; it’s the perfect canvas to enhance the both the mitarashi and the fresh anko< (red bean confiture) that we have to talk about.

Okay yes, anko is a “controversial opinion” sort of thing in the West, having heard the “beans? but sweet? gross” conversation far too many times than I would like to recall. But hear me out. This freshly made anko is divine. From the light, almost purple color (which helps distinguish between fresh and factory-made, the latter usually being a dark red-brown color) to the delicate, almost soft sweetness and that smooth texture that’s somewhere between peanut butter and chocolate ganache, I implore you to throw away those preconceived notions and experience the glory that is anko.

Tying the parfait ensemble together is a crisp monaka shell (a wafer that usually sandwiches anko and any combination of other things) that adds just the right amount of crunch to punch up the texture profile. I was pleasantly surprised to also find a layer of broken monaka shell at the bottom of the parfait which somehow remain crunchy despite being covered in soft serve! Genius. The whole thing paired wonderfully with the azuki latte which was just azuki enough to give you that earthy sweetness without going overboard.

If you’re in the mood for wagashi>, or just looking to try some for the first time, Sabō Tsuruya is there for you. Check out their Instagram for all the latest on seasonal specials and more!

Sabō Tsuruya

Address: Fukuromachi 4-5, Naka-ku, Hiroshima City

Opening Hours: 11:00-19:00 (L.O. 18:30), Sun/Nat’l Holidays 11:00-18:30 (L.O. 18:00)

Closed: Not specified

Tel: 082-245-2680

Hiroshima Food Snob

Freelance writer, translator, local TV talent, and full-time food snob in Hiroshima