Nikuman or beef manju is a very common snack in Japan and something that Japanese are quite passionate about. In the cold months of the year, every convenience store chain has their annual best nikuman lineup in a glass case, steaming hot, next to the cash register. There is everything from primo wagyu-man to exotic pizza-man. Nikuman is of course Chinese, not Japanese, called baozi (包子) in Chinese.
I love nikuman, both the Japanese and Chinese variety. I find the baozi in China has a wonderful variety of hearty and tasty, usually handmade fillings and the nikuman in Japan often have great steamed bread but are a little mass produced in taste and feel. Japanese nikuman lacks the hearty soul of baozi in China as it is almost never handmade or fresh.
Kyoto-style baozi is not something that I had contemplated. It turns out there is a Kyoto kaiseki restaurant in Gion called Hattori Ebisu Rakuan (服部ゑびす楽庵) that developed a Kyoto-style manju that is sold in a few places in Kyoto, one being the foodie’s paradise of Nishiki Market. Hattori Ebisu Rakuan doesn’t actually have a shop in Nishiki but the tsukudani store Ajidontsuki has a steamer full of their nikuman. Give this one a try if you are visiting Nishiki Market, especially in during the winter months. In one recent year this was the number one selling item in all of Nishiki Market!
In addition to being tasty, these nikuman are beautiful. They have a delightful ‘yakiin’ hot iron brand that says kokyo hoka, kokyo means old capital and hoka means hot, and these manju are hot hot hot!
Inside the thick streamed but is a mixture of beef tsukudani (wagyu beef simmered in sweet soy sauce), kimpira gobo (burdock root simmered in sweet soy sauce) and shibazuke tsukemono (Kyoto-style eggplant and cucumber pickled with red shiso)! The addition of tsukemono is really novel.
How did it taste?
This nikuman is served straight out of the steamer and it is REALLY hot. I couldn’t eat mine right away and had to sit down on a chair in the shop while it cooled down.
I took a first nibble but it was still too hot for me to bite through the steamed bread and get to the tsukudani filling. The steamed bread is quite thick and being bread doesn’t have a huge taste. At first I was a little disappointed feeling like it was going to be bland. Then after another nibble or two I finally got to the tsukudani filling, it was amazing! The combination of wagyu beef, burdock root — and tsukemono was a real surprise and quite overwhelmed me with flavor.
The texture was weird and satisfying; gooey rich beef, fibrous burdock root and crunchy, but hot tsukemono pickles. Tsukemono is always served as is, not cooked.
This little snack is a wonderously weird combination of several orthodox Japanese dishes and condiments — and pickles — wrapped up in a bit of classic Chinese cuisine. And, somehow it manages to still feel pretty ‘Kyoto’ to me. The shibazuke is one of Kyoto’s most well known tsukemono pickles and comes from Ohara, a small village in the mountains just north of the city. Ohara is very famous for its red shiso which is used to naturally color and flavor various pickles.
One thing, Miwa said that she has had this many times and sometime it is not so good. It is basically fast food. Though this nikuman was developed by a famous restaurant in Gion, I doubt that it is actually made by Hattori Ebisu Rakuan, on site. Production is probably subcontracted out. But it is still very good, pretty authentically Kyoto — and unique!
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