Just A Little Sweet: All About Wagashi
Soft mochi cakes, delicate bean-filled monaka, sweet dango, round chewy daifuku, and smooth yokan are just a few examples of wagashi-- traditional Japanese sweets. The name wagashi came into circulation during the Meiji Restoration in Japan, in order to differentiate Japanese sweets from western ones that were growing in popularity after Japan ended its long period of isolation. Wagashi are incredibly diverse, coming in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, compositions and flavors and at the same time, are uniquely distinct from western-style dessert construction.
One of the central ingredients across wagashi is the use of anko-- paste made from boiled, mashed red beans and sugar. With a consistency similar to a thick jam, anko appears in wagashi in smooth (koshian), and chunky (tsuban) forms and is commonly used as a filling. Other common ingredients include rice flour, mochi-- the sticky pounded rice cake, kanten-- Japanese agar, and Japanese chestnuts with other ingredients such as strawberries, matcha powder, and sakura blossoms appearing seasonally. Wagashi are typically less sweet than most western-style confections and are of a somewhat smaller size making most of them edible in one or two bites.
Despite the relatively recent invention of the term, wagashi actually has a very long history in Japan. Trade with China meant that sugar was a household ingredient by the middle of the 14th century. However, the creation of wagashi virtually exploded during the Edo period with the expansion of urban life, the introduction of dim sum, and with the popularization of the tea ceremony. In a tea ceremony, matcha green tea is prepared in a ritualistic manner, and is accompanied by wagashi and a light meal. Tea ceremonies can vary from relatively simple, informal affairs to elaborate, all-day rituals depending on the location, the season, and which people are involved. Because of their involvement in tea ceremonies, wagashi are made with green tea in mind, with the flavors and textures present acting as a compliment to the drink.
As mentioned before, wagashi encompass a very diverse group of foods. With this in mind, wagashi can be broken up into eight major categories: arare, daifuku, dango, dorayaki, manju, mochi, yatsuhashi, senbei, monaka, and yokan. Arare and senbei are technically types of rice crackers, and are not always sweet, but can be. Their use as a snack in the tea ceremony, rather than their flavor is what puts them into the category of wagashi. What distinguishes senbei from arare are their size and shape-- senbei are usually somewhat large, circular and flat while arare come in many shapes and are small enough to eat by the handful. Dorayaki and monaka are also somewhat similar. Both utilize wheat cake sandwiched around a filling of an, or red bean paste. However, dorayaki uses a thick pancake-like cake, where monaka’s outer coating is very thin and crispy like a wafer.
Daifuku, dango, mochi and yatsuhashi all feature the inclusion of a type of sticky, squishy dough made from pounded glutinous rice or glutinous rice flour. Mochi and dango are the most basic, being composed of solid pieces of glutinous rice dough, often shaped into spheres and topped with an, soybean flour, or a sweet sauce made from soy sauce and sugar. What distinguishes them are their size and method of serving. Mochi typically comes in a palm-sized block, while dango are small, spherical and served on a stick.
Daifuku and yatsuhashi are both somewhat dumpling-like, with a core made from an coated in mochi. Their biggest difference is their shape-- yatsuhashi are flat, kind of like ravioli, and daifuku are closer to spherical. Yokan is distinct within itself, most closely resembling a jello made from an. Unlike jello, yokan is completely vegan, made instead with agar agar as a congealing agent. Yokan come in a range of firmnesses, determined by how much water is used with firmer varieties being more popular in the winter.
Wagashi are a versatile class of confection with many variations according to shape, moisture content, and season. Interestingly enough, wagashi very rarely use any kind of dairy, and are more often than not made completely of plant-based ingredients making them friendlier than most desserts to people with dietary restrictions. This is largely due to the relatively new introduction of cow’s milk on Japan’s culinary scene-- something that has only really taken off in the last 150 years. Here at Maido we have a wide selection of wagashi, ranging from more traditional to more modern takes, and a few wagashi that rotate in and out of stock with the seasons. Be sure to look for wagashi on your next trip picking up groceries, or waiting for takeout!