Wagashi: Japanese traditional sweets or works of art?
March 26, 2018
What Is Wagashi?
A trip to any department store food court in Japan will inevitably lead you into a tantalizing world of rows upon rows of wagashi. Perhaps best translated as traditional Japanese sweets, they range from mesmerizingly simple to intricately decorative, and at first sight these creations may seem bewilderingly alien for those unfamiliar with Asian ingredients.
In wagashi, a primary ingredient is bean paste known as anko, but they also commonly contain things like kanten (agar) and wasambon (Japanese fine-grained sugar). Classic examples include daifuku – soft yet chewy mochi (gelatinous rice flour) gently encasing a sweet filling of beans or fruit. Or, a personal favorite, the more modern imagawayaki – fluffy, circular pancakes, stuffed with bean paste, including irresistibly creamy custard...
The varieties of wagashi are overwhelmingly numerous, but they collectively represent a culmination of global history, pieces of art that demands all five senses, and often a reflection of the season and locale. That may sound like a lot to digest, but let me break it down for you as sweetly as possible.
Wagashi is the culmination of a bombardment of overseas influences. Japanese envoys to China between 630 and 894 brought back exotic sweets made of rice, wheat, soybeans and azuki beans. Jumping into the sixteenth century, Spanish and Portuguese visitors saw the introduction of refined sugar, and the use of flour and eggs to make items such as castella. But Japanese sweets didn’t explode until the Edo period (1603-1867), which mark a long period of prosperity. Most wagashi eaten today are believed to have emerged during this time. As competition for creativity intensified, wagashi specialists began to draw on literary references for their designs or invent poetic names. Wagashi transformed into cultural works of art.
If that all sounds a bit overly romantic, be warned: before gobbling down your sugar rush, consider whether you’ve used all five of your senses. For example, according to Yoshio Kataoka, who runs a wagashi shop and classroom, the way the name of the wagashi sounds must conjure up a beautiful image. The texture must feel good to cut, and equally so in the mouth. And, of course, the wagashi itself must look, taste and smell delicious too.
Seasons are integral to the designs. Wagashi are often made with seasonally available ingredients – a key element of Japanese cuisine generally – and these are also intrinsically related to ancient traditions and festivals. At the time of writing, it’s spring, which happens to be a conveniently festive and delicious time. I recently called into my local plum blossom festival to enjoy an ume daifuku, in which pillow soft mochi encases melt-in-the-mouth shiro-an (white bean paste) and pickled plum in syrup, sweet with a hint of sharpness.
Hinamatsuri, known as the “doll festival”, is held on March 3rd to pray for the health and happiness of girls. One of the traditional sweets eaten is hishimochi, diamond rice cakes of three layers – pink for the blossoms, green for the green fields of spring, and white for the remaining patches of snow. And there’s also mochi containing yomogi (mugwort), a medicinal herb believed to drive off evil spirits and promote longevity.
Each wagashi maker also adds their own creative touch. Kataoka displays six seasonal wagashi on a stand as if they were the dolls in display for the festival. At the top are wagashi representing the emperor and the empress, with sweets on lower levels representing the bonbori (lanterns) and even a rope on a traditional taiko drum used in the festivities. I sample the emperor and discover him to be a rather unique coffee-flavored gyuhi (extra soft mochi) wrapped in a delicately colored yokan.
Although plum blossoms are in full bloom, the stores are already preparing for cherry blossom season. One of the classics is sakura mochi – red bean paste inside a pink-colored mochi, all wrapped up in a pickled cherry blossom leaf and conveniently portable for hanami (blossom viewing parties). The smell of sakura greets you before the treat even reaches your mouth, and each bite is a voyage of tastes and textures, as the saltiness of the leaf plays off the sweetness of the filling.
Autumn marks the availability of chestnuts – which if you haven’t eaten in Japan, you quite possibly haven’t appreciated fully these golden treasures quite yet – and it’s also the time that Japan’s national flower, the chrysanthemum, starts to bloom. Accordingly, stores offer many representative designs. Autumn leaf patterns make an appearance, and you can find various lunar-inspired themes for tsukimi (moon-viewing parties).
Wagashi have a very traditional image but they also reflect current times. As Kataoka says, the younger generation – known for their cries of “kawaii!” (cute!) – tend to gravitate towards more highly decorative versions. One such modern take is by Midori Morohoshi, a wagashi creator and ceramicist. Inspired by traditional beliefs in how scents were used to ward off bad luck, she makes contemporary wagashi presented as art on dishes crafted to match. Another trend sees the rise of wagashi pairing events with sake and other alcohol, as opposed to tea, and even very traditional stores are offering tasting notes aimed at modern consumers and for matching exotic produce.
There are several places offering classes where you can experience making wagashi for yourself. To truly know my mochi from my manju, I visit a cooking school in Tokyo where Ayuko Akiyama teaches traditional Japanese recipes in English.
We’re going to be making nerikiri – highly decorative soft rice flour paste with a bean paste center. On arrival, I find she’s already kindly mixed the dough – a combination of mochi flour, shiratama flour (an extra sticky kind of rice flour) and mizuame (a clear sugar syrup). My role is to measure it out and knead it several times, break it into smaller parts, and knead again in order to reduce the moisture content and create the appropriate texture. This process is where the name “nerikiri” comes from – literally “knead-cut”. Despite watching Akiyama’s deft movements, I find myself covered in dough, looking like a five-year old child who shouldn’t have been allowed in the kitchen.
Next up, we color the dough, adding only a minuscule amount of dye, and then wrap it around a sweet white bean paste center. Akiyama explains red azuki beans can also be used, but the stronger color shows up when you mess up. I quickly learn the truth of her words when I accidentally mash my nerikiri and the center pokes shamefully through. Shaping the forms is an incredibly delicate process, but eventually I manage two versions: a light pink covered in tiny sakura cutouts and a tricolor version (pink, green, white) for the hinamatsuri.
Wagashi is supposed to reflect the creativity of its designer. I’m not sure what my first attempt says, but I remember some words from Kataoka. He wants everyone who eats his wagashi to take a moment to relax and forget their troubles as they enjoy their treat. That’s how I recommend you also try wagashi: focus your five senses and sample Japanese culture sweetly in one bite.
Text and Photos: Phoebe Amoroso
30-7 Wakamatsucho, Shinjuku, Tokyo 162-0056
Buddha Bellies Cooking School
3-31-2 Yushima, Bunkyo, Tokyo 113-0034