Monday, September 22, 2008


Day sixty-three: Ohagi

Named after the small round flowers of the autumn-blooming bush clover, ohagi are associated with Buddhist observances around the autumnal equinox. During the holiday of Higan ("the next world"), the living gather at gravesides to visit with the returning spirits of their ancestors.

Like 90% of Japanese sweets, ohagi are made of sweetened beans and rice, but in this case the rice, unusually, is on the inside; as one of my friends put it, ohagi are "a reversal of natural order", suited to a time when the dead return temporarily to the world of the living. The mochigome (glutinous rice) is soaked and cooked but not pounded, so the individual grains are still perceptible. The ball of cooked rice is blanketed in a thick coating of stiff chunky bean paste (tsubuan). Some ohagi are then rolled in black sesame seeds, or (as above) in kinako, a powder made of toasted soybeans.

At one time, ohagi were made exclusively for Higan gatherings, but like Cadbury Creme Eggs, the seasonal treat was so popular it eventually became available year-round. Another friend, who grew up in a small town in Kyushu, told me that the women in his family used to stick dried fishtails on the tops of secular ohagi, to definitively separate them from those cakes made to comfort and nourish the dead.

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