Boxes of wagashi are something you can find everywhere in Japan around New Year day, in addition to kagami mochi.
What are wagashi?
The term wagashi is used for practically any Japanese sweet. Mochi, for example, also fall into the category. Despite having a history of more than two thousand years, the wagashi we see today are the result of trade between Japan and the West. In fact, some preparations today require cooking in the oven, which would not have been possible before.
Japanese desserts, whether traditional or not, are absolutely delicious and wagashi are no exception – and beautiful to the eye! In fact, Jwagashi are famous for their particular shapes, so much so that they look like small handcrafted jewels. Soft fish, colored balls stuffed with delicious fillings and lotus flowers, pleasantly delight the palate. These sweets have different textures thanks to the various preparation methods and ingredients, mainly of vegetable origin. Wagashi are made with regional ingredients and prepared in certain times of the year (for example for New Year’s day).
History of wagashi
In the Yayoi period (300 BC-300 AD), sweets or dessert in Japan consisted of fresh and dried fruit. Things began to evolve in the Nara period (710 – 794) when the Chinese influence became stronger in many aspects of the Japanese life. Some say that kara-kudamono, a kind of fried mochi, is the dessert that began the history of wagashi.
Sugar was initially a luxury, so the Japanese used a sweetener called amazura until, thanks to trade agreements with the Portuguese in the Muromachi period (1338–1573) sugar became a common ingredient. However, wagashi was still considered a luxury until the Edo period (1615-1867), when they became a more accessible delicacy.
In Kyoto a refined style of wagashi was created, inspired by nature and the seasons, called kyogashi. Even today, traditional pastry is an important part of Japanese culinary culture. It is also a pleasure to the eyes, and some considered wagashi a form of edible art.
Types of wagashi
Today, wagashi are found in restaurants, tea shops, shopping malls or pastry shops, both in Japan and in other parts of the world. Some of these specialties are now widespread and internationally known, such as dorayaki and mochi. A particular type of these soft pastries are daifuku mochi, filled with azuki bean paste or other ingredients such as strawberries (ichigo daifuku). Other popular wagashi are the yokan, sugar jellies, and kanten, a jelly obtained from the processing of particular algae. They usually have a quadrangular shape and are small in size, to be eaten in one bite. There are monaka, two wafers stuffed with azuki bean paste.
Wagashi are grouped according to the cooking method or the amount of water. The softer ones are called omogashi or namagashi. The drier ones, similar to sugar candies, are called higashi. Han-namagashi have a consistency in between the other two.
I prefer the nerikiri, made with white bean paste, while those with a part of jelly, although good, are not really my thing.
One evening, returning from the konbini, I saw that one of the local bakeries, Kaneido, was selling fukubukuro (Kaneido is famous for traditional Kyoto wagashi). You know one of those dreamy traditional Japanese pastry shops, where they offer you tea as soon as you enter to entice you to buy? Here, on New Year’s Eve they offered kuromamecha, tea made with black beans. That wakes you up, warms you up and obviously makes you want something sweet right after. Well, in any case, I had already decided to buy fukubukuro, so they didn’t need to convince me!
Have you ever tried wagashi? And above all, do you have the courage to eat something so beautiful?