Wagashi: The Japanese Traditional Sweets
Wagashi is a term used to describe Japanese traditional sweets. Similar to Japanese cuisine, Japanese sweets also honor seasonality and locale. Wagashi is made in various shapes and with different ingredients, which imparts the aesthetics of seasons to normal dessert. The seasonal motifs of wagashi include but not limited to flowers for spring, fireworks for summer, fallen leaves for autumn, and snow for winter. Furthermore, the names of diverse wagashi are taken from Japanese poetry and legend, which are the words that conjure up beautiful images. Therefore, wagashi is not only a dessert tasted by the tongue, but also an artwork enjoyed by the eyes and mind.
What is Wagashi?
The earliest history of wagashi can be traced back to 3,000 years ago when the primitive wagashi took the form of mochi (Japanese rice cake). At that time, the word Kashi (sweets) means fruits and nuts because sugar is rare and expensive. With the increasing contact with China, Japanese envoys and businessmen brought abundant sugar, various sweets, exotic ingredients, and Zen culture back to Japan. From then on, wagashi developed numerous varieties and became a match with green tea.
Although wagashi is called “sweets”, it shares little similarity with western sweets. The first difference is that most wagashi are plant-based. They are made with polished glutinous rice, red beans, fruits, and so forth. They use agar rather than gelatin for texture. Some wagashi contain egg and dairy but it’s rare. The second difference is that wagashi puts importance on the aesthetic beauty of art and season. Therefore, their shape, color, and texture are designed delicately. The various shapes are craft-made, a remarkable manual skill requiring long-term training.
Types of Wagashi
Wagashi can be classified according to two factors: the cooking method and the water content. Based on the cooking method, wagashi can be categorized into 7 types:
- Mochimono: Wagashi made with mochi. Mochi is a rice cake made of short-grain glutinous rice, which is soft, sticky, and chewy.
- Nerimono: Wagashi made with bean paste. The bean paste can be made with red beans, white beans, pea beans, green beans, green peas, and green soybeans. The red bean paste is the most common type, which tastes smooth and sweet.
- Mushimono: Wagashi made by steaming.
- Yakimono: Wagashi made by baking.
- Okamono: Wagashi made by combining ingredients.
- Nagashimono: Wagashi made with a mold.
- Uchimono: Wagashi made with a mold and hardened through beating.
Based on the water content, wagashi can be categorized into 3 types:
- Namagashi: Wagashi with water content over 30%.
- Han-namagashi: Wagashi with water content of 10–30%
- Higashi: Wagashi with water content less than 10%
There are hundreds of types of wagashi, however, there are some famous ones you shouldn’t miss! And they are easy to be encountered in cafes, temples, restaurants, stalls, and stores!
- Daifuku: It's a small mochi ball stuffed with a sweet filling. The most common filling is red bean paste, while other fillings include strawberries, ice cream, and so on.
- Sakuramochi: It is a pink mochi stuffed with red bean paste and wrapped with a salted sakura leaf.
- Dango: They are small steamed rice balls on bamboo skewers. It has two flavors: salty and sweet.
- Dorayaki: It consists of two small pancakes and a layer of sweet bean paste in the middle. It’s Doraemon’s favorite!
- Taiyaki: It’s a fish-shaped crispy pancake with various fillings, including red beans, cream, chocolate, and so on.
- Mitsumame/Anmitsu: It is a representative of wagashi. It’s a confection made of glutinous rice and red bean paste, then crafted to a delicate shape.
- Namagashi/Nerikiri: It consists of sweet red beans, diced agar, fruits, and brown sugar syrup (or honey). Some modern Namagashi may include ice cream.
- Monaka: It consists of two round crispy wafer shells and red bean paste as filling.
- Shiruko/Zenzai: It is a sweet red bean soup with grilled chewy mochi or shiratama dumplings.
- Mizu Yokan: It’s a jelly-like dessert made of red beans and chestnuts.
- Arare/Okaki: It’s baked or deep-fried glutinous rice.
- Senbei: It’s similar to Arare, but thinner.