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Chinsuko Facts, History & Recipe – Okinawa’s Most Famous Sweet

Chinsuko is famous all over Japan as a typically Okinawan sweet, often bought as a souvenir to take back home by tourists visiting from other parts of Japan. But not everyone knows that this sweet has a long history, dating back to the Ryukyu Kingdom, when Okinawa had de facto independence as a separate kingdom and country.

Here we would like to offer an English-language primer about chinsuko, based on interviews with a representative of one of the largest chinsuko manufacturers in Okinawa, to give English-speaking readers a background on this interesting sweet.

Because Japan did not have formal trade relations with China during the Edo Period, the Ryukyu Kingdom (under an unusual dual tributary relationship with both Edo Japan and Ming China) occupied a useful and prosperous role as a trade go-between between Japan and China, as well as engaging in trade with Southeast Asia and European powers like Portugal and Spain active in Asia at that time. This exotic and multicultural environment created a unique Okinawan culture, with chinsuko as one example.

The name

The word “suko” in chinsuko means “sweets” in Okinawan. And it is thought that “chin” comes from the words for “rare” or “gold”. During the Ryukyu Kingdom period, chinsuko was only eaten by royalty and nobility. So perhaps it came to be regarded as an expensive or elite sweet by the common people, leading to “gold sweet” or “chinsuko.” The gold part of the name could also have come from the color of chinsuko itself. Additionally or alternately, since common people did not usually come across expensive sweets, it could be “unusual sweet”.

These are the various theories regarding the name, but without direct textual evidence, it is hard to be completely sure about the origin.

Simple Sweet

Despite its history as a sweet for the Ryukyu elite, this small biscuit only contains three ingredients: flour, sugar, and lard. These days there are various additions and special flavors, including matcha green tea, cocoa, pineapple, red potato, and cheese, with different kinds of sugar used and sometimes salt added, but in its original, classic form, chinsuko is very simple, and actually quite easy to make at home.

Origins

So what are the origins of chinsuko? As with the name, there are various theories, but no clear answer. One theory is a Chinese origin, from a traditional Chinese flour-based cookie called taosu that is quite similar to chinsuko.

The other common theories posit a European influence. Castella, from Spain, came to be known even in “mainland” Japan, and there is a possible precursor to chinsuko during the Ryukyu Period called chirunko, also made for the Ryukyu royal family and eaten to this day. Chirunko is a fluffy steamed cake made from sugar, flour, and eggs, that is thought to have been influenced or inspired by castella, and perhaps evolved into chinsuko.

Another possible precursor is the Spanish polvoron, a baked cookie with the same three ingredients as chinsuko: flour, lard, and sugar. During the Ryukyu Period, Spain was a major colonial power with a large colony in the nearby Philippines, and trading relations all over Asia.

Transition to Okinawan souvenir

Whatever its true origins, it was in the latter part of the Meiji Era, after the abolition of the Ryukyu Kingdom and Okinawa’s full integration into Japan, that chinsuko first became widely available in Okinawa. In 1908, Aragaki Confectionery Store, run by a descendant of a Shuri Castle cook, started baking and selling chinsuko for the general public. Because of its long shelf life, chinsuko soon became popular as a souvenir for Japanese making the sea voyage back to mainland Japan from Okinawa, but had a drawback of crumbling easily when eaten.

After World War 2, Shubu Aragaki gave chinsuko its current elongated, bite-size shape, helping with the crumbling problem. Now individually wrapped and sold at gift shops and other locations in Okinawa, chinsuko has become a delicious symbol of Okinawa, and a must-have souvenir. Along with disparate other unique food items like taco rice and the wide use of spam, chinsuko is an example of Okinawa’s long openness to foreign influences and cosmopolitan atmosphere.

Handmade chinsuko recipe

If you do not plan on visiting Okinawa and want to make chinsuko at home, give this recipe a try. It’s quite easy to make, and does not require many ingredients.

Ingredients (enough for about 20 cookies)

Lard: 50g

Brown sugar or white sugar: 50g

All-purpose flour: 100g

Instructions

- Add sugar to lard and mix until soft (pasty)

- Add flour and continue mixing with bare hands. The combination will become increasingly soft and easy to mix because of the warm temperature of the hands.

- Form the individual cookies

- Bake in an oven (pre-heated to 200°C) for 15 minutes

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