I’m not sure exactly when it happened but I’ve come to realise that at some point during the last few years I’ve inadvertently acquired a fascination for Wagashi.
For the 30 odd years I’ve been travelling around or living in Japan she’d been lurking…. I’d always considered her pretty, for the most part, but lacking in personality.
Mildly curious I’d found myself watching her from a distance – all the while she stared at her own reflection in the glass. OK, I thought, she’s quaint, nicely dressed, doesn’t smell bad… She was completely inoffensive truth be known – but there was always something missing…. I wanted to like her, I really did but I just wasn’t drawn to engage.
Eventually I was invited to events where introductions were made and I slowly began to see beneath her perfectly manicured surface.
The more I allowed myself to spend time with Wagashi, most commonly over a cup of freshly whisked matcha, the more beguiling she became.
I found her a little challenging at first – I’d even go as far as to say… strange? She had a tendency to be overly sweet and a little too smooth for my liking, even a little slippery on occasion.
But several encounters later I was facing a much more earthy Wagashi – mildly gritty when the mood stuck her. More substance, less style.
She became increasingly complex and interesting and less texturally challenging as time rolled on.
I started to notice subtle nuances, her mild perfume, her changing shape, the seasonal blush, dimples, angles, adornments and attitude… at times there was clarity (and alliteration…) – but more often not. And that was OK.
Sure, she could play the good-time girl – fun and colourful when she wanted to be – but she seemed more authentic when she demonstrated a more subdued and serious side. I couldn’t decide which mode of Wagashi I enjoyed more. Eventually I came to appreciate her for the whole of her parts.
WAGASHI is a generic term for traditional Japanese confectionary ( of which there are many types) and comes in seasonal forms, shapes, colours and flavours. Often it is made from beans, such as azuki, sweet vegetables such as sweet potato or powdered rice – and lots of sugar to sweeten the deal. Traditional flavourings include Matcha (powdered, high grade green tea) Kinako – a malty flavoured powder of ground, roasted soy beans, Kurosato (a nutritious and deeply flavoured black sugar), sakura ( cherry blossom) leaves and petals, yuzu (aromatic Japanese citrus), sesame and soy.
These days you will find modern versions which include liqueurs, essences, chocolate, nuts and curious fruits – which can be fun and an easier style to initiate with. Visually there now seems to be much competition via extravagant mouldings and trendy seasonal flavours – like these little tomato jellies below
Kyoto is particularly fond of Wagashi and there are many tea houses to sample these elegant morsels with a cup of matcha (or other tea if you prefer) and you will stumble across plenty of traditional stores selling various ranges – sometimes specialising in just one particular type. Department store basement foodhalls – like that of Daimaru and Takashimaya on Shijo Street have an amazing selection of traditional and contemporary wagashi all under the one roof (not to mention every other wonderfully exotic foodstuff in the universe!)
I’m prone to wandering between the glass cabinets of the traditional sweet department making a total nuisance of myself as I ogle the latest offerings from some of Japan’s very best Wagashi artisans. That’s only a half truth – the counter ladies actually seem to find my meanderings rather amusing. They give each other a little nod when they see me coming… yep, it’s that strange blonde one with her camera yet again… Hey, we all enjoy the dance… Seriously – they must be wondering where I am… But I’ll be dropping in on them again shortly for my fix…
Below is the start of my Wagashi collection for your viewing pleasure… I’ll add to it from time to time. Enjoy.
*note the colourful, refreshing effects of the summer wagashi above. Can you feel the cool water?? Kyoto gets damn hot and every little bit helps!
Mochi with ‘mitarashi’ filling above and being made below like takoyaki! (this is a modern take on mitarashi dango – chewy rice balls on a stick grilled with a sweet soy glaze. )
*above – mizu yokan – a lighter style (less dense) yokan for summer – with fruits, beans, green tea – in the shape of bamboo
Special wagashi for summer’s Gion Festival – see the float shaped boxes on the right?
Sweets in a can! complete with a salty hit of kombu (cooked in soy and sugar) in a packet for sprinkling on top
Warabi mochi above in a can with black sugar syrup and kinako packages for sprinkling over the top
These sweets above have a powdered red bean filling and a rice wafer, bell shaped, exterior. You place it in a cup or bowl, pour boiling water over it and the filling becomes a light red bean soup.
*fake bamboo packaging above with whole poached biwa fruit in jelly
Natsu mikan – above and below (summer mikan/refreshing citrus fruit filled with jelly made from its juice)
the sweet paste is made with fresh green peas – think azuki bean paste but much lighter and the natural sweetness of fresh peas – sounds odd but tastes amazing! The white dumpling balls are made from rice flour and water.
Twinkly gold flecked wagashi for Tanabata (star crossed lovers) Festival
Chimaki (Rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves) being sold on a special stand in Teramachi arcade during summer – part of the Gion Matsuri ( Festival) celebrations.
Also these at the same place as above ( in Teramachi sweet store) – on ice you will note. Chewy dumpling balls made from rice flour over sweet red beans. Delicious and refreshing.
The following 9 Wagashi are from October 2014 – note the autumnal themes – persimmon, chestnut etc
thin wafers being made in store, to wrap anko (red bean paste) and chestnut below
Chestnut flavoure kompeito – a crystallised sugar candy famous in Kyoto
Delicate faces of the gods – good luck sweets in elegant wansanbon sugar
bean sweets flavoured with sansho
a type of mochi with red beans and orange
Above is a modern take on Kashiwa mochi – a traditional sweet usually served for Kodomo no Hi or Childrens’ Day. The traditional sweet is plain mochi ( chewy rice cake) wrapped inside a fresh oak leaf . In the above version on the right hand side an oakleaf shaped mochi layer encases the filling.
In the same shop on Teramachi (above oike) that you will find the oakleaf mochi they sell these cheesecake warabi mochi. They come in citrus (yuzu I think), green tea and I’m not completely sure what the pink flavour is but I think it might be sakura (cherry blossom) as it was April when I snapped this ie cherry blossom season in Japan. Warabi mochi is a local favourite, originally made from expensive warabi root starch but these days a mix of starches like kuzu for example – it forms the base layer and in this unique version it is topped with a thin cheesecake layer – its not so creamy, more like a set gelatine cheesecake with a very light flavour and consistency. I’d rather stick to straight warabi mochi with kinako (roasted soy bean powder) and black sugar syrup….