和菓子 • Wagashi, Japanese Sweets/Confections
Wagashi are traditional Japanese confections that evolved into an art form in the ancient Imperial capital, Kyoto. The character pronounced ‘wa‘ denotes things Japanese, while the characters for ‘gashi‘, an alliteration of kashi, have come to mean confections. Wagashi represent the essence of Japanese culture, and continue to be vital force in Japanese life.
The origins of wagashi harkens to ancient time when cakes and dumplings were made of rice, millet, other grains along with nuts and fruits that were at the base of Japan’s dietary staples. Wagashi evolved from confectionery introduced to Japan by envoys returning from China after the 7th century and western-style confectioneries introduced from Portugal and Spain which were the only trading countries during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. For example, the original form of yokan and manju were introduced from China and developed during the 12th to 16th centuries. During the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), the Kyoto Tea Ceremony culture was particularly influential in the evolution of wagashi and the confections gradually came to be used as complement in the tea ceremony to show one’s hospitality. Thus, elaborately-designed wagashi or wagashi with mei appeared and lead to the forms of wagashi that people know and love today. Mei is an inscription or poem made for the ‘wagashi‘ envisioned by Japanese classic literature that came to have a big role as a cultural element taking the guest into a world of imagination with the presentation of wagashi. For example, the image of taori-zakura (snap off a cherry blossom) shown in the namagashi section shown next page, that particular confectionery expresses the sentiment the cherry blossoms are so beautiful one is tempted to snap a branch off to bring home.
Japanese Green Tea and Sweets
Sado the much loved Japanese tradition isn’t complete without a tasty complement of wagashi often served with koicha or usucha in keeping with the elaborate tea ceremony. The confections are carefully calibrated so that aroma and taste are subtle so as not to overcome the essence of carefully chosen green tea. Sweet and non-oily wagashi are expected to add to the aesthetics of the proceedings and often are served as snacks with tea.
Good for you Wagashi
Red beans are the main ingredients of wagashi along with grains such as wheat, rice, sesame seeds, yam, sugar and kanten (agar) added as required. All natural ingredients chock-full of vegetable substance, without animal fats (except eggs) and thus good news for those concerned about bad cholesterol. For example, red bean jam (a common wagashi ingredient made from boiled azuki beans and sugar) is abundant in high quality protein with a good balance of linolic and linolen acid, vitamins E, B1, B2, B6, amino acid, mineral calcium, phosphor, potassium, magnesium, and iron. Rich in vegetable fiber that provides a crucial role in a good digestive system, it’s no wonder wagashi are rightfully claimed to be tasty and healthy sweets.
Wagashi are made from vegetable-based ingredients and are rich in fiber. Various ingredients are used, including an extensive range and variety of flours and sweeteners.
Azuki – Red and White azuki beans
A delicate, red or white variety of bean grown in Japan using special methods, azuki are often cooked into an (ahn), a sweet paste used in a wide range of sweet confections.
One of the oldest of Japanese produced sugars, wasambonto is the result of intensive labor and unique refining process; it features a powdery smooth texture, elegant taste and fragrance commonly made into higashi, a molded dry sweet.
Types of Wagashi
The extensive array of wagashi does not merely encompass a single group of confections; rather, the art of Japanese confectionery owes its great diversity largely to its ingredients and methods of preparation.
Namagashi are beautifully crafted confections made fresh daily with delicate forms reflecting the varied facets of nature throughout Japan. Artistically conjuring up the essence of each season, the promise of spring as buds open, dew drops on verdant summer leaves, flamboyant colors of fall and the intensity of winter plum blossoms. The names given to these fine confections resonate with poetic language that enhances the delights of wagashi.
Made with azuki bean paste, kanten and sugar, yokan is a thick jellied sweet and one of the most popular wagashi. The form as it is now was completed during Edo Period (1603-1867). With a long shelf life it’s a recommended gift item.
Two thin, crisp wafers made from sticky rice and often shaped as delicate cherry blossoms or elegant chrysanthemum, monaka is packed with azuki bean paste.
A great favorite is the sweet bun made of joyo (yam) dough or flour, steamed and filled with bean paste.
Higashi (Dried Sweets)
Higashi is glutinous rice flour, sugar or Wasambonto and starch blended and pressed in molds to form dry sweets.
How to enjoy Wagashi
Feel the season in advance
Namagashi in its delicate forms reflects the varied faces of Japan’s four seasons; these particular wagashi are displayed in stores a full month ahead of the seasonal event. For example, Sakura-mochi celebrating Japan’s beloved cherry blossom time near April is available at the end of February. While enjoying the delicious taste of a Sakura-mochi, one can sense the coming of spring while imaging the loveliness of a cherry tree heavy laden in white blossoms. Only in Japanese culture can one discover sweets and confections that are magically transcended into harbingers of the coming seasons.
More readings on History of Sugar in Japan
The Art of the Five Senses
Wagashi‘s fascination to an epicure is its unlimited appeal to all five senses with each confection an open invitation to indulge our innate sense of voluptuousness. Culture, tradition and eye-caching scenery, will ever inspire Japan’s confectioners to craft new varieties of delicious wagashi. To know Japan is to know wagashi!
Taste is a primary sense through which we experience the various, distinctive flavors of wagashi. These confectionaries are made largely from natural ingredients such as beans and grains that are staples in the traditional, healthy Japanese diet.
To appreciate delicious wagashi each piece must be soft, moist or crisp when in the hand, cut to serve or placed on the tongue, qualities that must be present to reveal the freshness, quality and uniqueness of each confection.
The lyrical Japanese names bestowed on each wagashi, spoken aloud and the pleasurable images evoked are most agreeable to the ear. Many names are derived from classical prose and poetry, while others may suggest a season.
Wagashi and Calendar events
Wagashi are closely associated with major traditional, seasonal events, holidays and Japanese history while others are made to enjoy seasonal changes.
Oshogatsu (New Year) January 1st
January 1st is a time to welcome the god of the New Year and occasion for enthusiastic celebrations and personal renewal. The Japanese love to decorate their homes with kadomatsu (gate pines) and kagamimochi (special rice cakes), to feast on osechiryori (traditional New Year dishes), visit shrines and temples to pray for health and blessings.
Hinamatsuri (Girls’ Festival) March 3rd
On the 3rd of March occurs a wonderful Japanese tradition when families with daughters display a handsome set of Hina-dolls (Emperor, Empress and attendants). Hishimochi (rice cakes), hina arare (popped rice), rakugan and sakura-mochi are set in front of the figurines as an offering and later enjoyed by everyone. Akoya is standard wagashi shaped in pearl shell motif in western Japan.
On the 5th of May, Tango no Sekku solicits health and future progress for the family’s boys. Outside flutter Koinobor (colored carp streamers), inside are displayed warrior dolls Musha-Kazari, miniature armor and swords. Special rice cakes, Chimaki wrapped with bamboo leaves and Kashiwamochi wrapped in oak leaves are delicious part of the celebrations.
Usually around this time in the fall in Japan, in a clear sky, Otsukimi is the most propitious time to gaze upon a dazzling full moon. Japanese pampas grass is displayed while tsukimi danngo (dumpling) are ceremoniously offered to the lunar goddess. Coinciding with the harvest season for Japanese taro, beans and chestnuts, the full moon around this time is variously called Imomeigetsu (taro harvest moon), Mame-meigetsu (bean harvest moon) or Kuri-meigetsu (chestnuts harvest moon). A variety of wagashi are made to associate with this event.
More images of wagashi → here.
[Source: Collage of information and photos from a variety of cultural websites]