apanese cuisine is the epitome of elegance and refinement. The attention devoted into the smallest details reveals the magnificence of its discipline. Unsurprisingly, this pursuit of perfection does not stop at the main course – it extends into the realm of traditional confections, known as the Wagashi
Wagashi are traditional Japanese confections known for their exquisite but simple presentation. While many would relegate desserts as an afterthought at the end section of a menu, Wagashi are oftentimes a standalone, full-blown affair that are served with tea or as part of an elaborate ceremony. They come in various forms and flavours.
Although wagashi’s preparation can be complicated, the ingredients can be unexpectedly simple. This reflects the history of Japan as a country scarce in natural resources. Consequently, most wagashi are prepared with a few basic ingredients like mochi (rice cakes), kanten agar (vegetable gelatin), anko (red bean paste), sesame paste, and sugar.
Wagashi are highly popular among Japanese of all ages. Makers of those traditional confections can very well be local celebrities, as witnessed by the two-hour lineups that happen daily in front of the best shops. As many would confirm, the wagashi they make are pieces of art. This makes eating them a rather challenging undertaking. One needs to override the guilt associated with wrecking works like this.
The efforts spent to make wagashi look as good as it tastes reflect the general Japanese aesthetics. Like many aspects of Japanese craftsmanship, visual appeal is just as important as the function itself. Especially during tea ceremony, tremendous care is employed to ensure the proper selection and presentation of those sweet delicacies.
Like Japanese cuisine, the variation of wagashi depends on season or the region they are produced. Some regions are known for their red bean pastes, while others may be more adept at making mochi. Here, we will be looking at a few of those made in the Kansai region of Japan.
Beans and Konpeitō
As we will see later, beans are indispensable when it comes to traditional Japanese confections. Although they are usually processed into paste or slush form, they can also be consumed on its own in whole. Japanese beans come in hundreds of variety. The most common types are the adzuki
, kidney, and black beans. They are usually boiled and coated with honey or other sweet sauce. To add contrast and texture, some are sprinkled with sugar while others are fried and encrusted with a crunchy outer shell made of Japanese crackers.
Konpeitō, on the other hand, is wagashi made with pure Japanese sugar. It takes on a shape that resembles the naval mines. Konpeitō are often infused with a wide variety of colours but no additional flavourings are added. The name actually derives from the Portuguese word confeito, a type of sugar candy. It was introduced in the early 16th century by Portuguese traders and has since been a mainstay of Japanese traditional confections. Konpeitō is also the standard visiting gift of the Imperial House of Japan.
Biscuits require no further explanation. They are simply the round, flat baked dessert made from flour, eggs, and sugar. While biscuit is not a Japanese invention, it is so versatile that it is readily incorporated into the Japanese culinary lexicon with regional twists.
Japanese biscuits tend to be softer and milder in flavour. They integrate ingredients specific to the country, such as black sesame, plum, or matcha. Unlike the legendary Pocky
, traditional biscuits are less decorated and colourful. They are often served with tea.
Dangos are mochi balls made with sticky rice. They are very soft but chewy. Although they are similar to mochi, they do not usually have an inner filling; they are also denser and stickier. Dangos can be served on a skewer and roasted over fire like campfire marshmallows. They can also be consumed individually with dippings.
The picture below shows a variation of dango, called the mitarashi komochi. Mitarash komochi are similar to dango but larger in size and contains fillings. They are filled with a slightly spicy-sweet sauce made with a mixture of soy sauce and sugar. They are a speciality of Osaka and are traditionally served with green tea.
Dorayaki are essentially sandwiches with bean pastes in the middle of two disk-shaped castella pancakes. Although red bean paste is the traditional ingredient used, they are sometimes altered by adding a layer of whipped cream, matcha paste, or chestnuts. The disk shape was invented in 1914 in Tokyo.
‘s favourite, are widely popular among the Asian communities and are ubiquitous in supermarkets even outside Japan. Although most are prepackaged, there are still many places in Japan that sell fresh dorayaki. In those shops, dorayaki are usually made on spot and served hot.
Agar is discovered in the 1660s by Mino Tarōzaemon. Although often used as a raw ingredient for the other wagashi, it can be consumed directly in the form of light jelly. Kanten agar is derived from algae and is widely used in Asia to make desserts. Interestingly, it is also used in laboratories as solid substrates for microbiological culture media.
Kanten agar is made by dissolving the raw powders in boiling water. Flavourings, including fresh fruits, are then infused into the mold before the hot liquid solidifies. It is transparent and light in taste and texture, perfect as a summertime dessert. When consumed directly, it can also be accompanied by whole red or black beans.
Kuzumochi are wagashi made with kuromitsu covered in flavoured powder. Kuromitsu is kind of molasses that is thinner and milder. It is derived from the starch of Japanese Arrowroot plant found in Okinawa and have very little taste itself. Though it serves as the base ingredient for many sweet dishes such as kuzumochi, it can be consumed directly.
Kuzumochi’s preparation method is similar to kanten agar but the resulting texture is more solid and chewy. They are often dipped in matcha powders for an aromatic and slightly bitter taste. And due to their light texture, Kuzumochi are considered a summer dessert. They are, however, available year-round and can be eaten in any season.
Continued in Part 2