We already covered some general information regarding Japanese traditional sweets called wagashi in the first part of our blog series.
Today, we continue our exploration of wagashi – diving deeper into the diverse world of rice-based sweets.
After sushi and ramen noodles, mochi is perhaps the most well-known symbol of Japanese cuisine.
It’s a simple, sticky rice dough with a neutral flavor that can be eaten as-is, frozen, grilled, or fried. It’s exceptionally chewy and stretchy, and very soft.
You can eat mochi fresh, or freeze it for later use. It doesn’t keep well in the refrigerator.
The chewy mass is often simply shaped into balls and eaten plain, but as wagashi, it can come in many forms:
- Filled with fruits, ice cream, or sweet paste
- Wrapped in leaves
- Covered with toppings
- Flavored and colored during production.
Mochi is made of mochigome – a short-grain variety of rice that was named after this dessert. It’s a very starchy kind of rice that’s also called sweet rice, sticky rice, or glutinous rice.
The Traditions around Mochi
However, you can’t just grab a bag of rice and make mochi at home. Making mochi, or as the Japanese call it – mochitsuki, is a popular social event that requires at least two people and special equipment – a large mortar (usu – 臼) and a huge wooden mallet (kine – 杵). One person pounds soaked and steamed rice with the mallet, and the other person turns the dough around and adds water in between hits. The process requires a flawlessly steady rhythm to avoid injury.
Today, the laborious pounding of the mochi-making process can be automatized, but mochitsuki remains an important cultural event in many regions of Japan.
Mochi is not only a big part of Japanese nutrition – it’s deeply symbolic ceremonial food too. It’s a crucial part of Osechi Ryori (おせち料理), traditional New Year’s food boxes. In addition, two mochi cakes and one tangerine on top are used as a traditional New Year’s display too (kagami mochi – 鏡餅).
However, mochi has a dark side too: It’s so chewy that it’s a common cause of suffocation, especially among the elderly. Every year, Japanese authorities put out warnings, reminding people to cut mochi into small pieces so it can be chewed and swallowed safely.
Mochi is nice. But combine it with a bit of sweet paste or fruit for additional flavor, and you get something amazing – daifuku.
Daifuku mochi, or more simply, daifuku, is a mochi rice cake stuffed with filling and topped with corn or potato starch to prevent the cakes from sticking to each other.
The most common daifuku fillings are:
- Anko (餡こ) – sweet azuki red bean paste (read up on anko-based sweets in the next blog post!)
- Shiro-an (白あん) – white bean paste
- Fruits like strawberry, kiwi, melon, banana, peach, and tangerine.
- Ice cream – popularized by the conglomerate Lotte, ice cream daifuku is called Yukimi daifuku (雪見大福 – snow viewing daifuku)
Mochi in Soups and Noodles
Due to its neutral taste and amazing texture, mochi is a versatile ingredient. Along with wagashi like daifuku, mochi can be a great addition to both sweet and savory soups:
- Zenzai (善哉) or Oshiruko (お汁粉) – when I first heard it, sweet soup sounded like an oxymoron to my western brain. But, sweet soup is very real, and honestly very delicious!
Zenzai and oshiruko are two similar kinds of sweet soup containing azuki beans and pieces of mochi. The sweet red beans are cooked whole in zenzai and crushed into a paste in oshiruko. Both are common wintertime treats.
- Zouni (雑煮) – This savory soup takes roots in samurai cuisine, but today, it’s an integral part of all Japanese people’s New Year’s food repertoire. To make zouni, use dashi stock as a base, various meats, fish, and veggies as additions, and of course, pieces of grilled mochi.
- Chikara udon (力うどん) – Udon are among the oldest kinds of Japanese noodles, and they’re wildly popular in any soup. Yet, chikara udon, translated as “power udon”, is a power combo of noodle soup and mochi.
Kuzumochi (葛餅 or 久寿餅) – Mochi Without Rice
Kuzumochi is not really mochi – in fact, it’s not a single kind of wagashi either. The two kinds of sweets the Japanese call kuzumochi only contain “mochi” in the names due to their soft, chewy consistencies. The word kuzumochi (葛餅) may refer to gelatinous cakes made of a starchy kuzu root flour (葛粉 – kuzuko) in a similar way jelly is made. Kuzu, or kudzu plant is sometimes called Japanese arrowroot, but don’t be fooled – kuzuko is far better at making jelly than average arrowroot starch. Along with kuzuko, you only need a bit of water and sugar to make kuzumochi. It’s often topped with kuromitsu (dark-colored sugar syrup) or kinako(soybean flour). An alternative to kuzumochi is warabimochi, made from warabi or “bracken starch”. Although similar in taste and consistency to kudzu, warabi is considered a delicacy and is very expensive.
Alternatively, kuzumochi (久寿餅) refers to fermented wheat starch cakes. This kind of cake is primarily found in Kanto region of Japan (including Tokyo and a few other big cities).
Uirou is a rice flour confection similar to mochi, so it’s sometimes also called uirou-mochi. Compared to mochi, uirou is less chewy, but it’s also easier to make at home.
The subtle sweetness and aroma of uirou come from dark brown sugar called Muscovado, or kurozatou (黒砂糖) in Japanese. Muscovado is a dark mixture of crystal sugar and molasses, but brown sugar may be used instead. A mixture of muscovado and rice flour is poured into a mold and steamed, and the sweets are later dusted with potato or corn starch.
Additions like anko, matcha green tea, yuzu citrus, strawberry, or chestnut are often added to enhance the flavor and texture of uirou.
🍡 – This popular emoji doesn’t represent a lollipop, oden, or a regular meat skewer. Instead, it’s dango – one of the most popular rice sweets in Japan. When you think about it, an unusual amount of Japanese food emoji are widely used; I guess Japanese food has a certain aesthetic appeal along with being absolutely delicious.
So, what is dango? It’s a rice flour dessert with a similar texture to mochi. Three to five rice balls are put on a skewer and covered with a wide selection of sweet toppings.
Dango dough is made with a mix of uruchi rice flour and glutinous rice flour (mochiko). While the desserts have a similar neutral flavor and chewy consistency, dango is made in a different way than mochi.
Since dango have a rather plain, light, and sweet taste, the skewers are often covered with toppings or flavor is worked into the dough itself.
Some of the most common ways of eating dango include:
- Anko dango (あんこ団子) – Covered with sweet red bean paste that we’ll devote an entire blog article to. Less commonly, edamame-based zunda paste or kurumi paste made of walnuts are used.
- The colorful emoji I mentioned before is true to life too. Specifically, it represents hanami dango (花見団子,blossom viewing dango), also known as sanshoku dango (三色団子, tricolor dango). Instead of toppings, hanami dango contains three differently flavored rice balls: a pink one with strawberry, a plain white one, and a light green matcha tea-flavored rice ball.
- Dango comes in uniquely sweet-savory combinations too. Shoyu dango (醤油だんご) is baked and covered with soy sauce. It may even be covered with seaweeds like nori, when it’s called isobe dango (磯辺団子). Sesame paste covered goma dango (ごま団子) are another salty and sweet example.
- Kinako is a widely appreciated flour topping made by grinding roasted soybeans. It’s frequently used as a nutty-flavored topping for wagashi, and kinako dango (きなこ団子) is not an exception.
- Chestnut pastes and sauces are also popular – they’re used for kuri dango (栗団子), with rice balls sometimes served separately and eaten with chopsticks instead of a skewer.
Higashi (干菓子) – Dry Sweets with Extra-long Shelf Lives
Higashi is a blanket term for dry kinds of wagashi that contain less than 10% water. The low moisture content gives higashi a long shelf life, unlike typical tea ceremony wagashi that must be eaten within a day.
Dry sweets are practical since they can be kept in a jar for a quick snack. That’s why there are many grades of higashi out there. The highest quality higashi sweets are made with wasanbon (和三盆), premium fine powder sugar of a golden color with a slight buttery flavor.
The dry wagashi category includes many sweets, most notably:
- Rakugan (落雁) – Rice and sugar cookies pressed into molds, usually representing flowers, leaves, and other motifs from nature.
- Konpeito (金平糖) – small, colorful hard candy made of sugar (no rice included in this recipe).
- Senbei (煎餅) and Arare (あられ) – rice crackers that can be served as both sweet and savory snacks.
- Yatsuhashi (八橋) – A popular souvenir from Kyoto, it’s rice dough made with cinnamon. Yatsuhashi can be steamed for a soft texture, folded into a triangle, and filled with anko. As a souvenir, yatsuhashi is mostly baked for a crunchy consistency and long shelf-life.
We usually associate miso (fermented soy paste) and soy sauce with savory delights, but that’s not always the case. Yubeshi is an example of delicious sweet cakes, and the recipe requires both.
To make the sweet yubeshi, you’ll also need a bit of rice flour, walnuts, and yuzu citrus juice. After kneading and steaming, you’ll end up with an elastic, chewy sweet with a lovely walnut aroma.
In some regions of Japan, instead of using yuzu juice, yuzu fruits are hollowed out and filled with other ingredients for a long-lasting treat.
Pounded, Steamed, or Grilled – Rice can be Sweet
Ever since Japan started importing and producing sugar, the variety of creative, easy-to-make sweet recipes keeps on growing. Combined with rice, the most common ingredient in Japanese cuisine, and a few other ingredients for enhanced flavor, the world of wagashi gets bigger, softer, and sweeter by the day.
There are many traditional Japanese sweets made with rice grains or flour, but there’s one ingredient that’s even more widespread – anko. The sweet red paste made of azuki beans is truly the star of Japanese confectionary, so jump on to the next article where I’ll give you more detail on wagashi with anko.