The World of Wagashi

A person's hands shaping dough.

In Japan, sweet treats are practically a way of life. You might know about the unique flavors of Kit Kat bars, or the chocolate-coated biscuit sticks called Pocky. Another well-known Japanese dessert is mochi, a sweet rice cake made of glutinous rice called mochigome. Mochi is one of many types of wagashi, traditional Japanese confections that have been made for over two thousand years.

Wagashi are small confections that are both tasty to eat and beautiful to look at. While wagashi is a designation of Japanese treats, there is actually no specific definition for what makes a treat wagashi. Certain types of wagashi are associated with different times of year or holidays. Certain wagashi are only available during specific months, such as sakuramochi in March to celebrate the cherry blossoms. They may also be shaped for each season and holiday: sakuramochi might look like cherry blossoms or have cherry blossom decorations.

According to the Tokyo Wagashi Association, there are two main aspects of wagashi: manju and yokan. Manju “refers to the outer skin that is wrapped around bean paste,” and yokan is jellied bean paste. However, not all wagashi are manju or yokan. Because no specific definition dictates what must be used in these confections, they might be made with a wide variety of ingredients. Some ingredients are commonly used, though, such as bean paste, rice, rice flour, agar-agar, and kudzu starch. Here are some common wagashi listed on the Tokyo Wagashi Associations website: 

  • Dorayaki: “A confection prepared by sandwiching bean paste between pancake-like cakes made by mixing eggs, sugar, honey, and water into wheat flour and then baking the mixture on a copper plate. It is said that the treat’s name comes from its resemblance to a gong-like percussion instrument called a dora.”
  • Kusamochi: “This confection features bean paste wrapped in a pounded dough made by adding softly-boiled Japanese mugwort leaves, sugar, and water to steamed and pounded rice flour. The aroma of the mugwort and flavor of the mochi and bean paste come together to create a unique taste.” This one is typically found in the month of February.
  • Nerikiri: “Nerikiri features various designs depicting seasonal colors and shapes in a layer of nerikirian that was prepared by mixing Chinese yams and gyuhi into shiroan. The nerikirian surrounds a center of adzuki koshian. A confection arising from the sensibility and skill of the maker, it is representative of the creativity found in Wagashi.”
  • Dango: “Dango are made by adding water to rice flour and then steaming the mixture. The mixture is then placed in a rice mortar and pounded into dough, which is then cut up into pieces that are rolled into balls. Ordinarily four balls are stuck onto a skewer.”

One can enjoy wagashi anytime, but they are also commonly served during the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Tea ceremonies involve the preparation of matcha, a powdered green tea. Wagashi are offered before the serving of matcha, as a sweet complement to the bitter tea.

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