“Wagashi” is traditional Japanese confectionary, often served with tea. They are generally extremely fancy and beautiful, each one a little work of art. Traditionally, wagashi are used mainly for the Japanese tea ceremony as well as for festivals, special occasions, and temple ceremonies. There are also wagashi eaten as everyday treats, but those are generally more simply designed and colored.
Typically made from natural ingredients, it is considered both healthy and delicious. The origins of Wagashi date back in time to when cakes and dumplings were made of rice, millet, other grains, nuts and fruit – all of which were the foundation of Japan’s dietary staples.
The predecessors to contemporary wagashi are believed to have been brought to Japan during the Nara Period (710-794 CE) as a result of trade with China, where shaped and molded sweets were made of flour, chestnuts, and rice. The first Japanese wagashi appeared on the market during the Heian period(794-1185). Ever since, Japan refined techniques for making confectionary and these delicacies were served at the Imperial Court and offered to Shinto and Buddhist deities. Made of local fruit, chestnuts, rice,mochi, flour, soy beans, azuki beans, and cane sugar, they became popular snacks to accompany tea. Contemporary wagashi still use these ingredients as a base and are still dyed with natural plant dyes. However, the style and shapes have evolved quite a bit over the course of a millennium.
Wagashi are classified according to the production method and moisture content: namagashi (very moist or wet), han namagashi (half-moist or wet), and higashi (dry). Namagashi are beautifully crafted seasonal cakes made fresh daily. They reflect the four seasons and nature of Japan and the names resonate a poetic beauty satisfying the sense of sound as well as taste, scent, sight and texture.
1. Good for your health
Red beans are the main ingredient of ‘wagashi‘, with wheat, rice, sesame seeds, yam, sugar and ‘kanten‘ (agar) being added where necessary. Confectioners use all natural ingredients that are loaded with vegetable products and not animal fats (except eggs), which is good news for those worried about cholesterol. For example, red bean jam ‘an‘ (a common ‘wagashi‘ ingredient made from boiled ‘azuki‘ beans and sugar) is rich in quality protein and has a good balance of linolic and linolen acid, vitamins E, B1, B2, B6, amino acid, mineral calcium, phosphor, potassium, magnesium and iron. ‘Wagashi‘ are also high in vegetable fiber which aids in digestion. It is no wonder these delicious sweets are praised for being both tasty and healthy!
2. Feel the season in advance
Wagashi are often designed for different seasons, like all Japanese cuisine. There are special spring, summer, autumn and winter wagashi. There are also particular wagashi for New Year’s, Cherry Blossom Viewing, and other traditional annual festivals. Seasonal wagashi vary greatly in colors and designs. For example, in autumn chrysanthemum shapes are favored. Spring wagashi often come in the shape of a plum flower. Famous wagashi for Cherry Blossom Season actually use cherry blossoms and leaves for flavoring and design.
Stores display these particular ‘wagashi‘ a full month ahead of the seasonal event. For example, ‘Sakuramochi‘ celebrate Japan’s beloved April cherry blossoms and are available at the end of February. With eager anticipation, one can enjoy delicious ‘Sakura-mochi‘ and sense the coming of spring, all the while imagining lovely cherry trees full of delicate white blossoms. Only in Japanese culture can one discover sweets and confections that are wonderfully transcended into messengers of the upcoming seasons.
3. The Art of five sense
Food lovers around the world are fascinated with ‘wagashi‘, in large part due to these sweets’ appeal to all five senses. With each taste, we step deeper into indulgence. Culture, tradition and stunning scenery will forever inspire Japan’s confectioners to create new varieties of delicious ‘wagashi‘. True to the exquisite aesthetics of Japanese culture, the way wagashi is created makes it appear almost too good to eat. Delightful to look at and deliciously sweet, it’s referred to as a form of “food artistry that can be enjoyed by the five senses.”
Appearance – Always a visual feast – the shapes, colors and creation of ‘wagashi‘ often reflect Japanese literature, painting and textiles. In addition to these cultural elements, ‘wagashi‘ also evoke images of nature.
Taste – To create such unique flavors, these confectionaries are made largely from natural ingredients, such as beans and grains, long-time staples of the healthy Japanese diet.
Texture – To appreciate ‘wagashi‘, each piece must be served fresh and ready to be placed on the tongue. They must also be soft, moist or crisp – qualities that must be present to reveal the freshness, quality and uniqueness of each confection.
Aroma – With a delicate aroma of natural ingredients, ‘wagashi‘ please the senses in a subtle manner that does not inhibit tea ceremony participants from savoring the accompanying beverage.
Sound – Lyrical Japanese names are bestowed on each ‘wagashi‘. When spoken aloud, they evoke the most pleasurable images. Some names come from classical prose or poetry, while others hint at a particular season.
Wagashi has been a Japanese delicacy for hundreds of years. Its variations are endless. Creating an entirely new wagashi, not a variation on a theme, requires the skills of a master craftsman and the sensibilities of an artist. Wagashi have long history and the basic technic of making wagashi is making it by hand. A high level of skill and experience is necessary to make wagashi. A typical craftsman needs 10 years or so to become an expert. Some wagashi are made by hand with heart. I hope that in the future, many more wagashi will be made by hands and not machines, to preserve the tradition of wagashi.
To know Japan is to know ‘wagashi‘!