Kyoto is known for its abundance of centuries-old establishments, from traditional teahouses to confectioneries creating intricate wagashi. Kameya Kiyonaga in the geisha district of Gion stands out as the only shop in Japan that continues to produce its oldest sweet.
Originally established in 1617, Kameya Kiyonaga quickly came to be known as one of Kyoto’s best confectioneries. In 1857, it was decreed one of only 28 shops that were allowed to present sweets to the Emperor. While the shop today offers a wide variety of wagashi, Kameya Kiyonaga’s specialty remains a fried dumpling called seijō-kankidan, which is believed to be the oldest confection that was introduced to Japan.
Its history goes back to the Nara period, circa 710-794, during which the Emperor sent out envoys to Tang China to learn about and adopt hitherto unknown culture and technology from the continent. One of the many things introduced to Japan in this era was deep-fried foods, particularly pastry confections collectively referred to as kara-kudamono.
Seijō kankidan or danki, which means “ball of joy”—a translation of the Chinese huanxituan—may be the most notable example of karakudamono, but its origins can be traced back further beyond China. Originally, it was invented in India where it was, and still is, known as modak. Tradition has it that it’s a favorite treat of Ganesha and it’s commonly made during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival as an offering to the deity.
Introduced through the Silk Road trade, the tradition has survived in Japanese Buddhism. The sweet itself, however, is rather hard to find today. Given by the high priest of Mount Hiei and passed on for many generations, Kameya Kiyonaga’s recipe involves blending seven different kinds of incense into red bean paste, then wrapping it in rice flour batter and deep frying it in sesame oil. Dubbed by some as an “edible incense,” this rare treat offers a taste of centuries’ worth of history.