For anyone delving into Japanese culture, the delights and benefits of matcha green tea are widely discussed. However, what is sometimes overlooked is the accompanying sweets, known as wagashi. Wagashi are traditional Japanese sweets or confectionery, made to be eaten (and admired) with green tea.
There are a variety of types, most of which utilize traditional flavors and techniques. Their presentation and appearance are considered just as important as their taste, and over time, the presentation of wagashi has evolved to become an art form of its own. Here we will look into some of the popular types of wagashi, as well as its history. If you are interested in learning about Japanese sweets, please also read A Closer Look at Dagashi: Japan’s Nostalgic Sweets.
Wagashi have been part of Japanese culture for centuries. The term was first coined in the Meiji period as a means to differentiate the confections from Western sweets, as Japan was ending its isolationist period at that time. However, wagashi existed long before then.
Originally, Japanese confectionary was largely comprised of fruits and nuts due to the rarity and high price of sugar. As trade with China increased, sugar became a more common ingredient and was finely used regularly during the Muromachi period. Aspects of Chinese and Portuguese food culture were also introduced to Japan through trade with these countries.
During the Edo Period, the production of green tea and the development of tea ceremonies was increasing at a fast pace, and the addition of a small sweet to accompany green tea became popular. From this point on, more types of wagashi were developed, with many variants arising to match the changing seasons, as well as wagashi featuring locally harvested produce and regional traditions.
> What is wasanbon (sugar) and how do you use it in Japan?
While some aspects of wagashi and Western sweets may seem similar, there are a lot of distinct differences. These differences are part of what keeps wagashi unique and culturally significant.
The first significant difference is in the ingredients. While there aren’t official rules regarding ingredients, most wagashi are plant-based with little to no animal products. Some wagashi do include eggs and some have a small amount of dairy, but it is very rare. Wagashi also tend to use agar for texture rather than gelatin.
Another difference is the methods of making sweets. Many types of wagashi require a lot of skill to create. This includes methods like kneading, steaming, and shaping the sweets carefully by hand.
The appearance of wagashi is also quite unique. They are almost all uniform in size, whereas Western sweets can vary from very small to very large. The appearance of wagashi is also reflective of the seasons, with seasonal motifs such as flowers or animals regularly being used in the decoration.
There are a few different ways to categorize wagashi, as there are so many types. The first is to separate wagashi into three categories based on their water content.
Another form of categorization is the method of making the wagashi. This involves seven main categories.
Within these categories, there are even more types of wagashi. However, some of the more popular types are as follows.
Namagashi are one of the most popular types of wagashi due to their wide variety of beautiful decorations. They are made with rice flour and a sweet bean paste filling. The material is very pliable, meaning it can be shaped into various seasonal motifs and styles. It is also able to be colored and painted. It is common to see namagashi in the shapes of cherry blossoms in spring, goldfish in summer, as well as other seasonal shapes.
Another very popular wagashi type is dango. Dango are small steamed mochi dumplings served on a skewer of three or four dumplings. They are usually then topped with a sweet soy sauce glaze or bean paste. One of the most recognizable dango varieties, both in and out of Japan, is hanami dango. This tricolored traditional sweet features one dumpling each of light pink, white, and light green and is served during spring months to represent the season and the blooming of the flowers. They are called hanami dango as they are very popular additions to hanami — Japan’s annual tradition of cherry blossom viewing picnics.
Dorayaki is a very popular type of wagashi and a great introduction for foreigners who are not used to the traditional flavors of wagashi. Dorayaki looks like a small pancake sandwich with a sweet bean paste filling and the two pancakes sealed around the edges. While they are not exactly Western-style pancakes, the taste and texture are similar, making it an easy transition for a Western palate. The bean paste adds a traditional Japanese flavor to this wagashi.
Wagashi, or traditional Japanese sweets, have a great balance of artistic expression and adherence to tradition. The makers of wagashi often continue to use traditional ingredients and techniques, focusing on traditional styles, yet there is also amazing artistic presentation and skill involved. Often made to accompany green tea, they can be seen as a distinct aspect of Japanese culture and identity.
We have explored some of the varieties of wagashi and the history behind them, so you can be ready for your next wagashi and green tea adventure. You can find more information on food, recipes, and dining in Japan with our Daily Living Guide, including opportunities to try a traditional tea ceremony, including wagashi.
Click the image(s) to see details.
© 2023 Japan Living Guide. All Rights Reserved.