Karakara-sembei – a fortune cookie-like sweet with a miniature folk toy inside – Tsuruoka’s traditional local confectionery
Tsuruoka, the castle town with 400 years of history, boasts local traditional confectioneries that have been passed down from ancient times. These include okitsunehan or kitsunemen (a treat made of black sugar and shaped like the face of a fox), hinagashi (unbaked sweets with sweetened bean paste inside; shaped mainly like food from the seas, fruits or vegetables from fields and mountains) and kirisansho (a kind of sweet made from glutinous rice and powdered Japanese pepper sansho) among others. We visited Mr. Yoshikazu Umezu, a tenth-generation master of Umezu Confectionery Shop that has been making karakara-sembei longer than any other confectionery shop in Tsuruoka.
The Umezu Confectionery Shop was established during the Genroku era (1688-1704) of the Edo Period (1604-1867). The production of dagashi (literally translated as cheap sweets), which includes karakara-sembei, is said to have begun during the Edo Period. As opposed to high-class confectioneries made from white sugar, which were allowed only for samurai, the dagashi made mainly from glutinous starch syrup and black sugar was made for ordinary townspeople. It bears an image as an inexpensive confectionery with a plain flavor.
The basic of the sweetness of dagashi is said to correspond to the sweetness of dried persimmons. (Persimmons are a popular autumn fruit in Tsuruoka.) It is sweeter than ordinary fruits, but less sweet than white sugar. It may be due to such sweetness behind the dagashi that we feel a sense of nostalgia or relief from it.
The traditional dagashi, that was once widespread across Japan, mostly disappeared after the war. Yet, some shops in the castle towns of the Tohoku region (the northeast part of Japan), like Tsuruoka, are still making dagashi, using the old-style production techniques.