- Wagashi – Traditional Japanese Confectionery
- Varieties of wagashi you can find at Japanese Market
Wagashi – Traditional Japanese Confectionery
The beneficial effects of wagashi
Wagashi is great for various reasons. First of all, it is gentle to the body. Wagashi is made using primarily plant based ingredients, so it’s naturally low in fat. Most wagashi confections are made from simple ingredients, and there are many kinds that can be enjoyed even by people who are allergic to eggs, wheat or nuts. Secondly, there are stories behind wagashi. Classic wagashi confections are likely to have anecdotes associated with them or legends concerning the origin of their names. It’s fun to learn about these anecdotes and legends. Lastly, wagashi represents the four seasons. It plays an essential role in expressing seasonal beauty in the Japanese tea ceremony. Indeed, the Japanese have long taken pleasure in appreciating each season through artfully crafted, sweet-tasting wagashi. For these reasons wagashi is good for the body as well as the mind.
What is wagashi?
Wagashi is the generic term for Japanese-style confections, which include not just sweets, but also savory snack foods like the soy-sauce-flavored arare or the recent hit, wasabi peas. However, when a Japanese person talks about wagashi it usually means doughy, sweet-flavored namagashi (moist confections) or han-namagashi (semi-moist confections). Take manju (sweet buns) for example: slow-cooked, sweet azuki bean paste is wrapped inside a soft bun that has designs crafted onto it. Wagashi has its own distinctive Japanese style and is irresistibly fascinating.
Unraveling the history of wagashi
The first confectionery in Japan were citrus fruits which were harvested for the 11th emperor in the 1st century CE. The fruits were called tachibana and were not sweet at all but sour. Of all the fruits, persimmon was the sweetest thing to eat until sugar was introduced to Japan in around sixth century, which was the same period when grain milling and processing technologies were being developed. One can readily imagine that those technologies were probably applied to producing confections.
Although manju and yokan (a jellied sweet made of azuki bean paste) are types of wagashi, they originated overseas and were not confections at first. They became sweets after having been brought to Japan. For instance, yokan had its origin in lamb soup. It was first incorporated into vegetarian shojin cuisine using azuki beans instead of lamb meat, which is the origin of mushi (steamed) yokan . Then it evolved further into neri yokan. Since the primary ingredients of neri yokan are azuki beans, sugar and kanten (agar), what started as lamb soup was gradually transformed into something completely different.The Japanese tea ceremony has flourished ever since Sen no Rikyu established it in the sixteenth century. Wagashi has always been served during tea ceremonies and thus has rapidly developed as well. The appreciation of the changing seasons and the beauty of nature is an important part of the Japanese tea ceremony. Because the tea ceremony back then was a practice performed only among the upper class, confections must have been pure luxury. Once the capital of Japan was transferred from Kyoto to Edo (today’s Tokyo), confectioners in Kyoto and Edo competed against each other with their skills, and as a result more sophisticated confections were created.
Kyo-gashi (Kyoto original sweets) are still treasured due to their history and technique, and also due to the geographical advantage of having easy access to such luxurious ingredients as Tanba no kuromame (black beans from Tanba) and wasanbon (a type of Japanese sugar).
Incidentally, the concept of wagashi was formed to distinguish it from yogashi (Western confections), which was introduced from Europe after the nineteenth century.
How is wagashi related to the seasons?Wagashi is deeply related to the seasons. Some of the typical spring wagashi are sakura mochi, which uses salted cherry leaves; nanohana kinton, which features a beautiful contrast of green and yellow; and kashiwa mochi, which is wrapped in a kashiwa (oak) leaf. The summer-themed wagashi includes waka-ayu, a baked confection shaped like the ayu fish; kuzukiri, a jelly formed like spaghetti; and mizu yokan, a jellied sweet made of azuki bean paste and agar. The fall-themed wagashi includes tsukimi dango, full-moon shaped dumplings; ohagi, roughly crushed glutinous rice covered with azuki bean paste; and kuri kanoko, which is made with an abundance of chestnuts. Typical winter wagashi includes oshiruko, sweet azuki bean soup; and manju and mame daifuku, sweet azuki bean paste wrapped inside mochi with salty beans mixed into it. The wagashi confections served during tea ceremonies feature seasonal designs, most of which employ floral motifs. Some of the other seasonal motifs are sansai (edible wild plants) and the uguisu bird (Japanese bush warbler) for spring, refreshing water and fish for summer, fall leaves and the moon for fall, and snow and frost for winter. Many wagashi sweets have poetic names, as well as exaggerated, simplified or stylized designs. For that reason they’re also delightful to the eye.
Wagashi confections are mainly ordered through wagashi stores for tea ceremonies, but they can also be enjoyed as a snack.
Wagashi and everyday lives
In various regions of Japan there are numerous wagashi sweets designed or named after famous local folk tales or waka, an ancient style of Japanese poetry, and many of these sweets have developed into gifts and souvenirs.
Wagashi is also deeply associated with seasonal events. Japan has various annual events, such as the celebration of the healthy growth of children, the tradition to welcome the returning spirits of ancestors, and harvest festivals. Various types of special wagashi are made according to these events. This is similar to the American tradition of eating candy com on Halloween and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Day. Many of the wagashi sweets relating to seasonal events are often enjoyed as snacks throughout the year.
What’s inside wagashiWagashi confections are made primarily from sugar, beans, yams, nuts, powdered grain, starch and kanten (agar). These ingredients are all quite mild, so high-quality ingredients, advanced skills and experience are required to make truly delicious wagashi; Japan even has qualification exams for wagashi confectioners.
If a beans and sugar combination is too extreme for you, there are some types of wagashi that are made without beans. Suama, for instance, is made from just rice powder and sugar. Kasutera, which is of Portuguese origin, is a moist, sweet sponge cake. Also, kuzukiri (made from bracken starch) are usually not combined with azuki bean paste.
Although the wagashi made by professional confectioners are delicious and widely available, some snack-type wagashi are easy to make at home. You can also make manju at home, but it might be difficult to succeed on your first try. Skill and experience make all the difference. As the proverb says, “When you order Mochi (rice cake), it’s better to left to the Mochi man.”
To enjoy wagashi
Ever since Western sweets, yogashi, was introduced and accepted in Japan, there have been attempts to integrate wagashi and yogashi to make new types of confections. Nowadays, western-style wagashi is becoming more popular. It often contains ingredients like chocolate and butter and is made using traditional techniques.
However, there are also Japanese-style Yogashi confections, such as green-tea-flavored ice cream and sponge cake with azuki bean paste. If you’re about to try wagashi for the first time, you might start with these Japanese-style yogashi. Wagashi has evolved with the changing seasons. Amid our busy lives, we can sometimes sense the seasonal changes through the wagashi sweets displayed in stores. We encourage you to take a short break and have some wagashi sweets with a cup of green tea, black coffee or straight tea to help you appreciate the beauty of the season, and contemplate the traditional festivals held in Japan.
Varieties of wagashi you can find at Japanese Market:
Dangos are little balls made with rice with some fillings inside. Some are served in pieces while some are served together on skewers. Dangos come in many different flavors; they can be sweet with the sugar in the dough, or they can come with soy sauce based special sauce called “Mitarashi” poured on top. They can also come with a variety of toppings such as red bean paste or soy bean flour, called “Kinako.” One interesting variety of Dango toppings is “Zunda,” which is an edamame soybean paste. The origin of Dango is said to date back thousands of years ago, when acorns were ground to flour and made into little balls. Dangos became very popular in the 18th century and became a national staple.
In the 14th century, a Zen Buddhist monk brought back Chinese buns with meat fillings, and they became the model for manjus. Since Japanese Zen Buddhism prohibited meat consumption, manjus instead contain red bean pastes or other vegetarian instead of meat fillings. There are two main parts to a manju: the skin on the outside and the filling. Usually, the skin is made of wheat flour while the filling is made of azuki, red beans. Over time, many variations have been introduced to both the skin and the filling. Usually the manjus are either steamed or baked.
There are several varieties of yokan (a cake made with agar), but it is mainly a kind of azuki (red bean) jelly. The azuki beans, are mixed with sugar and agar, a gelatinous substance derived from seaweed. After the mix is boiled and poured into a container, you cool it down to shape it. The red bean paste can be very smooth or contain some whole beans for texture. It can also contain nuts or fruits, such as chestnuts. Some are also mixed with maccha, a kind of green tea powder. Another unique flavor is the salt flavor. It is best when served chilled, often as an accompaniment to green tea. Yokan was originated after Zen Buddhism was introduced from China around the late 12th century. As part of Zen philosophy, it was supposed to be served between the meals.
It is said that the Portuguese originally brought the recipe to Nagasaki, Japan’s westernmost city on the island of Kyushu and the center of international trade in the 16th century Japan. The name is said to derive from “Castella,” which was the name of the Spanish kingdom at the time. Its main ingredients are eggs, sugar, wheat flour, honey, starch syrup and milk. The mixture is poured into a wooden frame, put in the oven and baked for about one hour. The result is a soft sponge like confectionery, with sweet and rich flavor. The top and the bottom of the sponge have dark brown soft crusts with the flavor and texture being very distinctive to kastera. Although it originally came from Europe, it is now considered a part of wagashi,” or “Japanese sweets,” because it has evolved to possess some unique and distinctive Japanese characters.
Dorayaki is also a kind of wagashi that shows a strong influence of the western sweets. The two circle pancakes on the outside are mostly made with wheat flour, eggs, and sugars which are ingredients associated with the western sweets. Sandwiched by the pancakes on the inside, however, is the azuki (red bean) paste, a staple of the traditional Japanese sweets. So dorayaki is in fact a perfect marriage of the western and the Japanese confectionery staples. Dorayaki contains either chestnut pieces mixed with the red beans or the western style custard. Unlike kastera, dorayaki is relatively new; it was created around the mid to late 19th century at the beginning of the modem Japan. The name combines two words “dora” and “yaki”. “Yaki” means “baked.” There are many theories for the origin of the first word “dora,” but one of the theories says that it derives from the name of a cymbal, a musical instrument, for the similarity in shape.