About Zenzai/ Shiruko
Zenzai 善哉 is a Japanese dessert (wagashi) made from azuki beans in the form of a soup. Inside, you can also find mochi, or rice cakes. There are two words associated with this red bean soup, zenzai and shiruko 汁粉.
Regarding the association of the two terms with the dessert, there does not seem to be a consensus on how they are distinct. Some say that the soup’s name differs in accordance with the region. Others say that while zenzai is made from paste, shiruko is made from crushed beans.
The dessert is made form azuki beans, which is a type of bean commonly grown in East Asia and the Himalayan region. It is seen as healthy alternative to many sweets, as it is rich in dietary fiber and protein, and has also been found as beneficial to the heart, as well as it being effective in diabetes prevention.
Like with many Japanese dishes, red bean soup is considered seasonal and is typically consumed during the winter time. It was served at a kanmidokoro, a type of sweets restaurant, as it was time-consuming to prepare at home. The dish was often sold as a take home food by street vendors as well. In this sense, it has been considered as one of Japan’s first street foods to emerge with the rapid urbanization during the Edo period.
This type of soup is popularly consumed all over East Asia and there are variations to the dish in every region. The Chinese, called 紅豆湯 Hóngdòu tāng, it is more soup-like similar to the Japanese shiruko. In Korea, the dish is referred to as 팥죽 patjug, and compared to the thinner soup-like versions, the Korean style is thicker just likezenzai, in that it has an almost porridge-like consistency. Hence, its name patjug, meaning bean porridge.
Even in Japan, there are regional variations to this simple dish. In western Japan, zenzai refers to shiruko made with crushed beans and paste. In eastern Japan, zenzai refers to a dish with rice cake and red bean paste. However, it is not what you would call soup. In Okinawa, zenzai is shaved ice with red bean soup poured over, with some rice cake (mochi) on the side as well. In Kagawa prefecture, the zenzai is used as zoni for New Year’s. In this sense, the zenzai/shiruko are indistinguishable terms used to refer to a universal dessert in Japan, with only local distinctions for preparation.
Appearance in Shank’s Mare
Red bean soup appears in Shank’s Mare after Yajirobei and Kitahachi reach Totsuka Station, one of the stations along the Tokaidō. They have a hard time finding an inn to stay at, but at last they find an inn with an opening. The inn master there is a nice man, and offers them plenty to eat and drink. This is where the soup appears, as one of the many things the inn master offers Yaji and Kita.
“It’s red bean soup,” said Kita. “Delicious! I hope it hasn’t got any hard beans in it.” (Satchell, 1960, p. 33)
Significance in the Text
It does not seem as if zenzai or shiruko is specifically affiliated with the location Yaji and Kita were travelling in within the text, but the reference does provide a fair amount of cultural background for life at the time. The Tokugawa era was a period characterized by rapid urbanization and commercialization. Even though azuki beans have been commonly used in Japan before the time, the sweet zenzai only came into existence in the 1700s when sugar became available from Japanese-grown sugar canes. The red bean soup that would have been difficult to produce before the period spread throughout Japan by the mid 1800s and it can be regarded as a strong representation of the emerging Japanese street food culture around 19th century Edo.
Origin of the Word Zenzai
For the word zenzai, there are two popular explanations for its origin and association with the food. In the first case, the kanji is connected to the Buddhism saying 善哉 yokikana that means “well done”. It came to associate with the food as a monk was once exclaimed the food was 善哉 when he was surprised by how delicious it was. The term is also related to the Izumo shrine. In the month when kamis gather for a break, the shrine hosts the 神在祭 kamiarisai celebrating “bonds”, en or musubi. The event would serve a dessert consisted of mochi in red bean soup that they call 神在餅 jinzaimochi. Due to the local accent, the rice-cake would be pronounced as zenzaimochi. Although zenzai is popular all over Japan with many variations, many people tie its origins to Izumo. This origin has also been referenced in other Edo period works such as the Gion monogatari.
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Contributors: Charlie Feng, Kaito Koshizuka, Yuyu Lee, and Conor McCann
(Edited by Elle Marsh)