Wagashi have been an important part of Japanese culture for hundreds of years. Back in Ancient Japan, fruits and nuts were considered a confectionery in themselves. During the Nara Period (710 – 784 AD), influence from China saw the processing of grain into sweet treats. Mochi (soft rice cake) and dango (rice dumplings) both originate from this era and were mainly used for religious ceremonies. Japanese confectionery changed forever when sugar became a staple import to Japan around 1350 AD. Sugar came from Portuguese traders, who even shared some of their sweetened food. Portuguese sweets were altered to what was known as nanbangshi. Due to the high expense of sugar and seasonal fruits, confectionery was reserved for the nobility and aristocracy. This was when the process of refining raw sugar to a fine wasambonto sugar was crafted. As sugar became less expensive and the popularity of noble experiences such as the tea ceremony became more accessible to lower classes, more people could afford to eat these delicacies. This created a market for making the confectionery with delicate and appealing designs, especially in Kyoto. When more European traders came during the Meiji period, western cakes and lollies were introduced. It was during this time that Japanese sweets became officially known as wagashi. The practice of making wagashi has continued to today with a mixture of traditional ingredients and cooking methods and modern techniques and styles.
Types of Wagashi:
Wagashi come in a wide range, but the most recognised kinds are:
• Daifuku: Moist sweets that are in a small ball shape. They are made of soft rice cake or mocha. They have a filling which is usually sweet bean paste. They are covered with a light dusting of potato starch to keep them from sticking together. Popular daifuku variations include strawberry, sweet bean and ice cream. Daifuku should be eaten the same day as purchasing as they become tough if left.
• Dango: This might be Japan’s most beloved and famous wagashi. They are small dumplings made of rice flour that are steamed. They are typically served skewered three or four to a stick and topped with a sweet sauce or bean paste. Dango come in many flavour variations depending on what the dough is coated with. These dumplings are sometimes added into other desserts. In addition to this, are also salty dango which are thinly coated with soy sauce before cooking.
• Dorayaki: A confectionery made of a sweet bean paste filling pressed between two pancake – like patties. Modern variations may be contain other fillings, such as whipped cream, custard cream and green tea flavoured cream.
• Higashi: A dry sweet that has been moulded into a small shape, traditionally a square. It is made with rice flour, starch and wasambonto sugar. This sweet is enjoyed as it dissolves when put in your mouth. Many manufacturers of this sweet will make five different types of this sweet which can usually be bought boxed. Each different higashi would have a different flavour, colour and shape to choose from to symbolise the lucky number five.
• Manju: A small bun that is filled with a bean paste or other sweet filling. These are usually cooked by being steamed or baked. They are first shaped in a circle with a smooth outer layer, but baked versions in various shapes have become more popular. The most recognised manju shape is that of a fish.
• Monaka: A confectionery made of adzuki bean filling pressed between two wafers. These are made from sticky rice and create a sandwich with the bean filling inside acting like a jam. Monaka are typically moulded into the shapes of flowers such as cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums, and plum blossoms. There are many very famous monaka speciality stores in Japan as these are usually eaten at celebratory events.
• Namagashi: These sweets are the most expensive and colourful as they are the typical sweet eaten at the famous Japanese tea ceremony. They are made in a range of shapes including flowers, leaves, fruits and spirals. While they share the typical ingredients of flour, eggs, beans and sugar, they are more soft and malleable than other wagashi sweets. This is because they are considered a ‘wet sweet’ as they are not baked. They have fruit jellies or sweetened bean paste inside them. They are designed to express the elegance and bountiful sights of the four seasons. The varieties of namagashi do change quite regularly and should be eaten as soon as they are bought.
• Oshiruko: A sweet soup made by simmering adzuki beans with wasambonto sugar that can be enjoyed either heated or chilled. The soup has a silky smooth texture and mellow flavour. It is usually served with dango on top of the liquid. These are sweet rice flour dumplings.
• Taiyaki are fish-shaped snacks made of batter similar to pancake batter and have traditionally been filled with sweet bean paste. Although more recent fillings include custard cream, chocolate or cheese. Taiyaki are best eaten hot off the grill when the batter is still crispy.
• Yokan: The oldest type of wagashi sweet. It is a bar of gelled sweet bean paste made out of adzuki beans, which gives it a dark colour. In addition to adzuki beens, yoken is typically made out of sugar and agar-agar (Japanese jelly). Extra ingredients can be included with specific seasons or experiences in mind, such as green tea, flower extract, crushed nuts, fruit, figs and sweet potato. Some yokan bars aren’t made with adzuki beans and have a lighter colour. This sweet is considered helpful for active people as the low fat and high sugar content makes it perfect as an energy bar.
• Zengetsu: Zengetsu means waning moon. It is a folded pancake made from flour and egg with an adzuki bean and syrup paste filling. Syrup on top is supposed to symbolise the clouds that the zengetsu moon is peeking out from. Some manufacturers include ginger to add to the flavour of the sweet.
The first time you taste wagashi, you may find it unusual as it is unlike Western sweets which emphasise a sugary taste. Wagashi usually have more flavours and textures. Here are a few pointers when eating wagashi which centre on the five senses.
1. Firstly, try to engage your sense of sound. Try to find out the name of the sweet you are eating. Many have poetic names such as miyo no haru (lasting peace), kogane giku (sun drenched chrysanthemum) or goshiki ito (threads in five colours).
2. Next is the sense of sight. Notice the shape, colour and designs on and within your wagashi. Typically these signify Japanese nature or the current season in some way. Historically these were written about in Japanese literature, paintings and textiles. These historic traditions now influence the wagashi designs, though some incorporate other modern cooking techniques and trends.
3. The moistness or crispness one feels when taking a piece of wagashi is picked up by the sense of touch. Many manufacturers try to create a sensation with the hand and mouth. Some wagashi are quite soft and malleable which is very different to Western confectionery. The different textures should indicate that it is fresh and made with high-quality ingredients.
4. Many Japanese sweets have a delicate fragrance. The natural ingredients in the wagashi create the subtlest of aromas and should enhance your palate without being overwhelming. This is because most wagashi are served with tea and are meant to complement this experience. Some wagashi fragrances are stronger once you have taken a small bite.
5. Finally the most important is the sense of taste. Be prepared that some wagashi are more savoury, tart or bitter in flavour than sugary sweet. While the overall taste is not plain, the taste is not meant to be too overwhelming but subtle. Remember this is to be taken with Japanese tea, and after a few sips, you may notice that the aftertaste of the wagashi changes. Try to eat the sweet in small bites to savour the taste.
6. You may not find a favourite sweet the first time round. The beauty of wagashi is that there are so many types, flavours and designs to choose from – and some change due to what time of year it is! Keep searching till you find one that suits you and your tea best.
Fun Facts about Wagashi:
1. If you are not living in Japan, many Asian food aisles or food stores carry wagashi sweets. If you do get the chance to visit Japan, you will find wagashi in nearly every food store. Selected cafes, stores, temples and food stands also sell specialised sweets that are well known. This is because their wagashi were made in a specific region historically, due to a special season or celebration or of the ingredients they use. You will have to do some travelling if you wished to taste some unique delicacies of wagashi in the many regions of Japan.
2. The most well-known location for a large range of wagashi sweets is the Nakamise shopping street in Asakusa, Tokyo. This 250 meter shopping street outside the Sensoji Temple has been around since the 17th century.
3. One of the most expensive brands of wagashi is Toraya. You find these sweet shops in Tokyo and Kyoto. This brand has a long history as the founder, Enchu Kurokawa, served wagashi sweets to nobility, including Empress Meisho. Records dated as far back as 1635 AD show the Enchu had twenty types of sweets that he would sell to the aristocrats in Kyoto.
4. In order to be considered a professional chef in wagashi, you will need to study for over twelve years. There are wagashi schools that will teach you about the different ingredients and techniques needed to create these sweets.
5. The Toraya Gallery in Kyoto is a museum on the history of wagashi. Not only are there paintings and records documenting different sweets, but also utensils and packaging throughout Japan’s history and different regions. The most exciting displays are those that show the changes in wagashi design and ingredients throughout the ages. What is so exciting is that the sweets on display are not models but REAL sweets. The curator of the museum checks them every day and orders more when the sweets can no longer be on display.
6. Wagashi could have been very different if it wasn’t for the Japanese Buddhist monks who were the first chefs of this sweet. The monks who travelled to China were forbidden to eat meat and Chinese variations of early sweets included livers of fish and other animals. They changed the recipe to the adzuki bean paste, which is included in most wagashi sweets today.
7. In Japan, eating wagashi is believed to have health benefits. As it has fewer processed ingredients, these sweets have lower calories and very little sugar. Many also don’t have any fat and are full of protein. If you eat a wagashi made with adzuki bean paste, the beans are said to help lower your blood pressure, promote digestion and help recovery from fatigue.
8. You should consider the tea you drink when planning to eat your wagashi sweets. Thin tea or usucha should be drunk with dry sweets like higashi. Thicker tea or omogashi should be drunk with moist wagashi. This is to ensure the tea and confectioneries complement each other.
9. Wasambonto sugar is a high-quality ingredient, though the most expensive sugar is called suiko wasambonto sugar. This sugar has ties to royalty as Empress Suiko gave her name to this sugar. She reigned during the 7th century as an empress regent.
10. Many types of wagashi have become popular in Japan and overseas because they have been eaten on Japanese TV shows. Dorayaki is the favourite snack of Doraemon, a popular anime character who is a robot dog. Ando Natsu is a drama series where a French chef becomes a wagashi apprentice. Nagisa is an anime character who loves dango in Clannad. It has a very cute song during the end credits all about the dango sweet. Don’t watch any of these shows with an empty stomach!