Wagashi are traditional Japanese confections. Although these are primarily considered to be desserts, the Wagashi recipes are extremely essential to Japanese culture as they are a perfect showcase of beauty, taste, smell and texture that can be united to create a perfect visually appealing as well as tasty dish. Wagashi recipes use fresh ingredients and there are many variations that are found all over Japan.
History of Wagashi
Wagashi recipes were traditionally prepared with rice flour, red bean paste and fruits which helped to sweeten it. Sugar was unavailable at the time and cooks relied on the inherent sweetness of the fruits in the dessert to flavor and sweeten the dish. Expert cooks at the time also boiled down the sap of the grape ivy to get syrup that would flavor the dishes. Sugar arrived in Japan only in the Tang Dynasty and it was treated as a medicinal substance that was used only for royalty to create the Wagashi. Over time, influences from China, local Portuguese and Spanish traders during the Muromachi Era caused a boom in the preparation of Wagashi. Newer ingredients and wagashi recipes as well as the ready availability of sugar spurred the development of the dish and different variations. By the time of the Edo Period, Wagashi making and selling became very popular. The local citizens made several variations that were consumed with tea while royalty had unique versions not known to the local populace. Most of the Wagashi recipes have remained the same with time and recipes are traditionally made to appeal to the Japanese sense of art which is an essential part of their cuisine and culture.
Ingredients and Popular Methods of Preparing Wagashi
There are several different versions that are sold in the country commercially. Usually, rice flour, red bean flour, white bean flour or azuki, kanten or a seaweed jelly, and wasambonto or sugar is used to make the dish. Butter and milk are very rarely used. There are many different variations that are created by individual households as well as by restaurants. A few of the more popular and oldest versions are-
- Yokan- This is a thick jellied sweet that is prepared from red bean paste, kanten and sugar and thickened with agar-agar. It can be preserved for a longer period of time and is very rich in sugar.
- Monaka- This consists of a sweet red bean paste filling that is sandwiched between two thin wafers of the sticky rice. The entire sandwich is then shaped like a flower.
- Manju- is a steamed bun like sweet that is filled with a sweet paste or jam or flavored flour. The bun is steamed before being served
- Higashi are crisp biscuit or wafers made from rice flour, sugar and starch mixtures.
There are thousands of different mixtures that are created and the individual ingredients of each will vary considerably.
Serving and Eating Wagashi
Most Wagashi are served at Japanese tea ceremonies with green tea as an accompaniment to cut the sweet taste of the Wagashi. Serving the right Wagashi during the right season is considered to a sign of good education and taste. There is also a tradition of the guests giving Wagashi to the host when they are visiting or during festive and auspicious occasions.