Japan might be famous for its crazy variety of Kit-Kat bars, but the Japanese devotion to creating diverse tasty sweets existedlong before supermarket candy.
The world of Wagashi, Japanese traditional sweets, is huge, ancient, and absolutely oishii. So much so that this is only the first article of my 3-part exploration of wagashi.
Today, I’ll take a dive into the most common wagashi ingredients, their famed seasonality, and the occasions that traditionally call for sweets in Japan.
Wagashi – Japanese Treats for Any Sweet Tooth
Wagashi (和菓子) can be literally translated to “Japanese sweets”. This word is used in contrast to Yougashi (洋菓子)which refers to western sweets.
The distinction is justified – the Japanese truly have a unique selection of sweets that are nothing like the cakes, biscuits, chocolates, and cookies we prepared back in the US. Ingredients like oil, eggs, and butter are rarely used in sweets in Japan.
In ancient times, before refined sugar became widely available, the word Kashi (菓子, kashi, the same as “gashi” in wagashi) was used for naturally sweet-tasting nuts and fruits. Today, “kashi” signifies all kinds of sweets. For example, the word Dagashi (駄菓子) refers to cheap store-bought candy and snacks. Wagashi, on the other hand, are delicious hand-made sweets with long histories.
Unlike sugar-packed penny candy, naturally sweet ingredients are the source of flavor in wagashi. Typically with less sugar added than most western confectionery, wagashi have a mild, refreshing flavor.
Wagashi are often made of sticky mochi rice, sweet red bean paste called anko, agar jelly, and fruit. Most traditional confections are made of plant-based ingredients, making them vegan-friendly. In fact, in keeping with Buddhist values that shaped the island’s culture, a big part of traditional Japanese cuisine is based on plants.
The sweet confections are not just a cure for your afternoon cravings. Wagashi are also a vital part of rituals, annual festivals, and ceremonies across Japan.
Wagashi + Green Tea = Timeless Combo
With increased trade during the Edo period, refined sugar became available in Japan – around the same time as green tea. Ever since, the two became inseparable – and wagashi became a key part of Japanese tea ceremonies.
The reason is quite simple – the delicate sweets complement bitter matcha tea wonderfully.
However, green tea and wagashi aren’t consumed at the same time. Instead, the sweets come first to prime your taste buds for the tasty matcha tea.
Japanese confectionery comes in many shapes and sizes. But the wagashi served at tea ceremonies are colorful, edible works of art. With intricate shape and color combinations, the bite-sized sweets are food for all your senses.
Appreciation for the natural changes during the four seasons is an important aspect of many Japanese customs. So, tea ceremony wagashi are hand-shaped in keeping with the spirit of the seasons.
Cherry blossom petals, chrysanthemum and camellia flowers, maple and bamboo leaves, snowflakes, animals, and even fireworks; Symbols of the seasons are all-present in the shapes, colors, and aromas of wagashi.
The Many Types of Wagashi Out There
You don’t need a special occasion to enjoy wagashi. In fact, the intricately shaped ceremonial confections are only one in a sea of delicious Japanese desserts.
Wagashi is most commonly classified according to moisture content. The amount of water in sweets determines shelf life. Some wagashi need to be consumed within the day, and others can be stored for months.
Common Wagashi Ingredients
Like in many segments of Japanese cuisine, rice is a versatile, ever-present staple.
In essence, there are two prevalent rice types in Japan: uruchimai and mochigome. The first (粳米, uruchimai) is regular short-grain rice, and the latter (餅米, mochigome) is a super-sticky variety frequently used for wagashi.
Both types of rice are used for different recipes, and both come in the form of grain or flour. Other grains, such as wheat or buckwheat, can be found in wagashi recipes too.
We’ll devote the second part of our Wagashi series to exploring the wonderful world of Japanese rice-based wagashi.
You may not think of beans as sweet stuff. But in Japan, a paste made of azuki red bean is the star of the dessert world. It’s called anko, and it’s found in almost every type of wagashi out there.
Making the paste is easy, so it’s a widespread, easily accessible ingredient for thousands of sweet recipes. Red azuki beans just need to be boiled, mashed, and sweetened with sugar.
A different type of bean is used to get another dessert filling:white paste called shiro-an (白餡). This type is more bean-y in taste, making it an acquired taste in desserts. However, it’s also been a widely popular wagashi filling for decades.
Bean paste, especially anko, is such a large part of Japanese wagashi that it deserves an article of its own. We’ll talk more about bean paste based wagashi in the third part of our Wagashi articles.
Fruit and Nuts
As natural sources of sweetness, fruits and nuts are often-found ingredients in sweets around the world. Japan is no exception, and many nuts and fresh and dried fruits found their way into wagashi recipes.
It’s said that acorns are actually responsible for the creation of wagashi like mochi and dango. In days long past, people discovered that the best way to make acorns less bitter is to grind them, soak them in water, and then make small snack balls from the paste.
Today, acorns are seldom consumed by humans. However, other nuts and fruits are widely used as wagashi ingredients:
• Citruses like yuzu and mandarins add a fresh kick to the sweetness of bean paste.
• Strawberries are super popular in cakes and mochi.
• Persimmons (also called Japanese apples) are a popular side to tea. Persimmons have a long shelf life, and they’re often dried in the sun for a sweet snack during winter.
• Chestnuts are used for a bit of a nutty flavor in desserts like yokan and dorayaki.
• Sesame and ginger are often added for an extra flavor kick or a bit of texture.
Agar-Agar (Kanten – 寒天)
Known internationally as agar-agar or just agar, this jelly-like thickener is known as kanten in Japan.
This jelly is made from red sea algae like Tengusa or Okonori. Unlike gelatin which is made of pig collagen, agar is the vegan-friendly jelly option since the seaweed is its only ingredient. Plus – agar contains virtually no calories.
In addition, once agar jelly solidifies, it doesn’t dissolve in warm water like gelatin does. That not only extends its shelf life, but makes for a nicer texture when chewing too.
Agar is used in desserts like:
• Namagashi (生菓子), the delicate tea ceremony wagashi
• Coffee jelly (コーヒーゼリー), a widespread type of jelly with coffee flavor (and a caffeine kick!)
• Kohakutou (琥珀糖), Japanese gummy candy
• Anmitsu (あんみつ), a dessert mix of fresh fruit, anko paste, and jelly, all topped with honey or a syrup called kuromitsu.
Kinako is flour made of soybean, one of the most common ingredients in Japanese cooking.
On its own, the roasted and ground soybean powder isn’t sweet. However, the flour is sprinkled on top of many sweets for an extra addition to the aroma.
It’s a common ingredient that adds a nutty flavor to wagashi like warabimochi, a sort of jelly, and dango, sweet rice skewers.
Sugary syrups are a great way to enhance the flavor and sweetness of any dessert, and wagashi is no exception.
For example, mizuame (水飴) is a clear sugar syrup similar to corn syrup. It’s often used to give additional sweetness and an attractive sheen to wagashi.
Another example is kuromitsu (黒蜜), a black sugary syrup, alike to but milder than molasses. It’s a common ingredient in wagashi, with kuzumochi and anmitsu.
Some candy production requires nothing but sweet syrup. Konpeito (コンペイトー) is the perfect example. This colorful sugar candy takes roots in Portugal, but it found a welcoming home in Japan a few centuries ago. The small-sized candies are made by layering sugar syrup over and over.
Desserts to Make Life Sweeter
Sweets may not be the most popular creation in Japanese cuisine, but there are many sweet reasons to check out wagashi if you get the chance.
Japanese traditional sweets are extremely diverse so there’s definitely something to suit everyone’s tastes.
Besides, they’re vegan-friendly and less packed with sugar than their western counterparts, so there’s probably just the right kind of wagashi for you out there. For me, wagashi are a healthy yet tasty way to cure my sweet tooth!