Yokan is made with mashed sweet Japanese red beans and Kanten (a gelatin-like substance made from seaweed). It looks like jelly, but is heavier. It is one of the Japanese traditional sweets that are traditionally served when having tea.
The Chinese character of Yo means mutton. Buddhism prohibits animal killings, so Buddhist monks are vegetarian. Yokan was a part of their diet in lieu of mutton, and arrived in Japan around the 12th to 13th century along with Buddhism.
Yokan greatly vary in price; some of them are sold in exclusive Japanese sweets boutiques, but reasonably priced Yokan can be found at convenience stores or supermarkets. Since it comes packaged in airtight wrap and is slim in shape, Yokan is a popular souvenir for foreign visitors. Because of its high sugar content, it can be stored in an unopened package for more than a year in normal temperatures, making it ideal as an emergency food. According to the 2010 to 2012 research by the Statistics Bureau of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, people in Saga city spent more money on Yokan than a majority of the cities in Japan. This is because the local Yokan is a very popular product in the area.
Ogi Yokan is different from the ordinary Yokan sold in Japan, because it has a sugar film on the surface. Its inside is soft like its regular counterpart, but the outside becomes crusty as time goes on. Some local people make the surface even harder by drying it for a long time.
When serving, first slice a Yokan bar about 1 to 2 centimeters thick with a knife, and place on a small plate. With a small fork, cut the sliced Yokan into one-bite size pieces. If you find the regular Yokan bar is too big, you can certainly buy a smaller size one that will be just perfect for one person.
Photo by Muraoka Sohonpo, K.K.