What is a Manjū Anyways?

In attempts to completely decolonize taste and preconceived notions around flavor profiles for this course, I am left with more questions regarding food and identity than when I began. This all culminated last Saturday at Smorgasburg when I came across the latest golden child popular foodie culture: the Raindrop cake. Several weeks ago, the Raindrop cake debuted at Smorgasburg as a new and exotic dessert for twentysomething year olds to gawk at after finishing their $15 artisanal grilled cheeses. It’s squishy to touch and seems to defy basic laws of culinary science, but it is not original despite New Yorkers’ newly found fascination with this transparent, sweet cake. Although Chef Darren Wong explains that it is inspired dish, it tastes nearly identical to mizu shingen mochi and led me to wonder if Chef Wong was trying capitalizing on Western eaters’ fascination with novelty dishes. Since the Kinseiken Seika Company trademarked the dish and only their variation can be legally referred to as shingen mochi, I wonder if Chef Wong simply repackaged the dish to sell in Williamsburg.1

I can understand the intrigue and mystery around the Raindrop cake, but it reminds me of mizu shingen mochi’s lesser-known cousin, the manjū, and raised far more interesting questions of translating dishes from one culture and cuisine to another. Originally from Northern China during the Qing Dynasty, the manjū stemmed from a variation of mán-tou (or mantou), a bun that quite literally translates to “barbarian’s head.”2 After the practice of beheading invading barbarians was abandoned, Chancellor Zhuge Liang instructed his troops to shape buns to look like human heads and to throw them into the river to scare barbarian troops.3  Eventually, more individuals started baking mantou buns for non-war tactics, and by the fourteenth century, Japanese envoys brought the buns to Japan and filled it with sweet fillings instead of meats. Manjū buns are known for their regional variations that seem reminiscent of the different forms of mochi. Just as the Raindrop cake seems like a stretch to be called mochi, versions of the manjū such as the momiji manjū of Miyajima island are still considered to be within the realm of proper Japanese manjū buns despite its odd maple-leaf shaped bun that is often fried. Furthermore, there are some versions of manjū or mantou buns in Korean cuisine that largely resemble the two with only minor flavor changes. This led me to consider the consequences that come from translating and repurposing a dish like manjū buns into other culinary traditions.


Momiji Manjū

To begin to unpack this topic, I considered the role of identity in food since manjū buns today can be seen as a commonplace marker of Japanese cuisine. As an element of culture and an expression of identity, food provides us with a platform to share narratives and to gain cultural perspective in a unique medium. The food we eat serves a function beyond metabolic need; we ingest our identity and define ourselves in this way. Roland Barthes describes this symbolic transformation by explaining that food is “a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behavior” in his article “Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption.”4

Food is a marker of individual cultures, and so by extension, groups of food, which I will loosely refer to as cuisine, help to define the culture of a collective group. In this way, cuisines change with its eaters, and these shifts can be especially turbulent when the changes come by way of interactions with other cultures. With food often serving as a primary vehicle of trade and communication during historical periods such as the Columbian Exchange, cuisines serve as a medium to express these physical, though often cultural, shifts.

However, what do cultural exchanges mean for cuisines? Alfred W. Crosby notes in his ecologically-driven novel The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 the biological consequences when distinctively different cultures exchange goods, agriculture, persons, and diseases. Crosby paints a bleak landscape that largely focuses on the biological effects—and rightfully so as this exchange led to the demise of many Native American civilizations and a devastating biodiversity loss—though it also important to consider what landmark shifts occur with food. For example, the Colombian Exchange is the reason why Europeans have nonindigenous crops such as corn, vanilla bean, and sweet potatoes.5  But, this raises more questions concerning ownership in food. Is my cuisine still mine if I borrow one of your spices? Where’s the line drawn between sharing culinary traditions and merging two cuisines together? And, is there really anything wrong with manjū buns referring to this general category of sticky bun + (assorted variations of) filling?

Earlier I referred to cuisines with a very loose definition, and to expand on that point, I refer back to the Father of Food Anthropology, Sidney Mintz.6 According to Mintz in Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions Into Eating, Culture, and the Past, cuisines exist strictly in a regional sense. Cuisines require active group membership where individuals are constantly utilizing the same ingredients, methods, and recipes in addition to relying on the same consistent diet.7  Not only is it impossible to create a national cuisine, but such attempts can be seen as diluting regional cuisines.

I tend to think of national cuisines as a concept created to bolster nationalism and create a collective identity for citizens to rally around. At first, this seems cynical and absurd at the very least. Of course, there are national cuisines- think about French, Thai, Italian, and Mexican food. French food is baguettes, creamy cheeses, endless glasses of wines, and heavily seasoned beef stews, right? When I go out to Amelie Wine Bar (22 W. 8th St), I expect to have a meal with all of these elements in order for it to be authentic French food. Leaving aside the pretentious attitude and complexities that come with determining authenticity in a cuisine, my expectations of French cuisine are entirely based on stereotypes or popular dishes. Just as people throughout the entire country of China are not eating eggrolls on the regular, not everyone in France is chowing down on a creamy brie smothered on a fresh baguette. (Although this sounds rather delicious.) Instead, perhaps our notions of national cuisine manifest in more tourist-accessible food or a specialized meal in a particular region of France. We shouldn’t think of it as representative of French food as a whole. By Mintz definition, there is no such thing as a national cuisine.

Instead, I think of cuisines in a much more free-flowing way where different regions may have several dishes or flavor profiles that are unique to an area; however, this cuisine does not necessarily exist solely in the region and instead, it interacts with people of other cultures and nationalities. As noted academics Delia Chiaro and Linda Rossato remarked, our modern society functions more as a “transcultural cooking pot” where cuisines and other elements of culture are constantly moving.8  Cuisines are fluid in the same way that cultures are constantly reacting, adapting, and evolving in response to other groups.

Consider for a moment what this means for our squishy friend, the manjū. If national cuisines exist as a symbolic plea to nationalism, can we accurately call manjūs a Japanese dish? As we’ve explored, the manjū is a regional dish, and as we’ve seen throughout my search for the one true manjū of my childhood, there are different variations and names for it. Is a manjū somehow less of a manjū if it suddenly has Nutella or salted caramel filling inside? And perhaps the better question is who has the authority to determine what makes up the manjū? I am inclined to defer to individuals who are apart of the culture, but what does that mean for my fellow hapa friends? Do we somehow have less of a claim on determining the authenticity of a dish?

To further elaborate on the troubles of translating and repurposing, I turn to Rakugo, a popular form of a Japanese literary entertainment that is based on Buddhist and Japanese comic storytelling. According to Baruch College professor Noriko Watanabe, “Rakugo is like a sitcom with one person playing all the parts. It is verbal art and a humorous form of entertainment at the same time. It’s not just a series of jokes, in discrete segments; it’s a continuous story.”9  Rakugo is interesting in the sense that it relies on Japanese humor and puns that do not necessarily carry the same meaning in an English version, and as a result, many of the stories and punchlines don’t have a literal translation. Despite this, Kimie Oshima, notable lecturer in English at Meikai University in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, stresses that rakugo performers still “have to always keep in mind the goal of explaining Japanese culture to people overseas.”10

One of the most famous and well-known story in this tradition is known as Manju Kowai.11 In this tale, one clever man deceives his friends into thinking that manjū buns are his deepest fear, and in attempts to frighten him, the man’s friends fill his room with many different flavored buns. Upon finding that the man ate all of the manjūs buns and realizing that they had been tricked into gifting the man his favorite treat, the group interrogates the man to figure out his real fear. The man replies that he is actually afraid of green tea.12


Putting aside the fact that this is a genius way to score free manjū buns (and also the fact that his friends are terrible people), Manjū Kowai is the perfect analogy to the difficulties that I faced throughout my manjū hunt. The dish that I had so much trouble finding due to culinary translations and iterations is steeped in a literary tradition that consequently struggles with English translation.

This quirky story further alludes to the fact that no one is quite sure what a manjū is. When the man tells his friends of his fear, one asks him if manjū buns are kind of animal. Though perhaps a little exaggerated, it reminds me of a conversation that I had with an employee of H-Mart (38 W 32nd St) several hours before our dinner party. I consulted Yelp and other food reviews online, and all anecdotes pointed towards K-Town in Manhattan as a starting point. This confused me since I associated manjū buns with small Japanese bakeries in Southern California, and I assumed that I would likewise find an abundance of these red bean pockets of sunshine in Manhattan and the outer boroughs. When I asked the employee where I could find manjū buns in the store, he didn’t understand what I was referring to until I asked for steamed, red bean buns. He brought out several types of sweet bean doughnuts, daifukumochi, and rice cakes.


Manjuu or sweet red bean bun?


Daifukumochi are delicious but not a proper manjū bun

To an extent, he wasn’t entirely incorrect since a quick internet search confirms that manjū buns very loosely refer to a sweet red bean confectionary. However, none of the treats that the employee brought out were the manjū buns of my childhood though they were similar enough. In theory, these should have been the same since they shared the same, essential parts: the slightly sticky, soft bun, the firm consistency that makes the first bite especially satisfying, and the correct filling (red bean, chestnut, or matcha). And yet, it was so wrong. The parts were not enough to make the perfect manjū.

I relate to our dear friend, the manjū. My name too seems to be a starting place of confusion, and it seems no one is quite sure how to classify me. My first name, Andréa, is Spanish while both my middle and last name, Sumiko Maehara, are Japanese. My mother was especially proud of our family’s mixed heritage and always insisted on including the accent on my first name and calling me Andréa Sumiko. Eventually, the same, inevitable question always seemed to come up: “What are you anyways?” (This was always preferable to “Where are really you from?”) My lighter skin color, non-Caucasian facial features, and darker hair typically warranted a response of appearing “exotic”—a term that feels belittling—and yet despite this, my classmates and other curious people were always so surprised when I told them of my racial background. I am Hispanic, Asian, and White, and yet, it feels unsettling to have to compromise with the “Other” option on a form.

I recall feeling as though my hapa self left me feeling too white to go with my Japanese grandfather to our favorite bakery to pick up manjū buns as a Sunday dinner treat. My Panamanian grandmother is a terrible chef who always tried to make American or Japanese meals for our weekly dinners but regularly forget to include spices and most preferable seasonings. As our secrete reward for smiling through another plate of bland beef stew, my grandfather would leave for a quick drive to clear his mind every Sunday before dinner and return home with the familiar box of manjū buns. The brightly colored pinks, greens, and beige buns were always lined up like gifts in the box, and my siblings and I would lean in to breathe in that sweet, floury heaven. After finishing dinner, my grandfather would saunter over to the garage, a no man’s land according to my grandmother who preferred to seek refuge away from the musty vinyl record collection. He would tell us that we could eat it in front of the house or in our play room, but he was going to listen to the Dodgers’ game in the backyard. And so, every Sunday evening, we sat on top of the grassy hill in the backyard and listened to the sound of the Disneyland fireworks clashing with America’s pastime while we savored every last, squishy bite. These are the perfect manjū buns.

Does any one culture or individual really have the right to claim authenticity over a dish? I don’t believe that anyone could say if a dish were authentic to a whole culture if this idea of larger national cuisines does not exist. I wouldn’t start proclaiming that Panda Express orange chicken is the quintessential Chinese dish, but I feel just as uneasy saying that one variation of the manjū is less authentic just because I purchased it in a Korean bakery. My dearest dumpling (and burrito) friends, I do not have a definitive answer, and I think that if there’s one overarching lesson that I have learned from this course it is that feeling left with a pile of more questions is a very good thing indeed. This conversation and my uneasiness should not be the ending place on culinary translations. However, to return to my earlier encounter with the employee at H-Mart, when I asked him what the difference was between the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean variations of frozen manjū buns, he asked, “does it really matter if the food is good?” Fair point. The Raindrop cake may not be the most traditional Japanese dessert, but should we denounce it for being a repurposed dish? In the end, if food is an essential marker of culture and identity, should we allow these overarching and looming questions of authenticity prevent us from enjoying food itself?

With squishy manjū love and admiration,


1 Kay Mat. “This amazing water cake just may be the most delicate sweet ever created!” Last modified June 4, 2014. http://en.rocketnews24.com/2014/06/04/this-amazing-water-cake-just-may-be-the-most-delicate-sweet-ever-created/
2 Keekok Lee, Warp and Weft: Chinese Language and Culture. (New York: AEG Publishing Group, 2008), 85-86
3 Lee, Warp and Weft, Chinese Language and Culture, 85.
4 Roland Barthes, “Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption.” Food and Culture: A Reader, Second Edition. (New York: Routledge, 2008). 28-35.
5Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972).
6 Sam Roberts, “Sidney Mintz, Father of Food Anthropology, Dies at 93” The New York Times, December 30, 2015.
Sidney Wilfred Mintz, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions Into Eating, Culture, and the Past. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).
8Chiaro, Delia, and Linda Rossato. “Food and Translation, Translation and Food.” The Translator 21, no. 3 (2015): 237-43.
9Harrigan, Diane. “Something Old and Something New: Rakugo and Japanese Culture.” Baruch College. Accessed April 17, 2016. http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/news/japanese_standup.htm.
10Kimie Oshima, “Spring the Rakugo Word” The Daily Yomiuri, 2002.
11 Loosely translates to scary manjū.
12The best drink to wash down classic red bean manjū buns.