Wagashi is a Japanese confection with centuries of history that dates back to 300 B.C. Since then, it has evolved into a delicacy that takes 12 years to master. The wagashi that we know today developed in the Edo Period, distinguishing it from the western snacks that were introduced in the following Meiji Period, which are more prone to have fat and oil in them. The traditional wagashi as a snack made with natural Japanese ingredients and sugar is still prevalent today and has permeated the West. Wagashi is meant to be savored and appreciated for its aesthetically pleasing exterior so it is not recommended to eat many of them in one sitting. Although the snack is light, they are imbued with rich traditional flavors.
Sakura goromo, bean cake with sakura leaves wrapped in a delicate sakura flavored crepe
The confection comes in various different forms but the undeniably artistic creations are easily recognizable. Because they are seasonal creations you can go to different stores and admire the intricacies of the various designs. The wagashi below is a jelly type called nagashi mono with azuki beans in it. The red from the beans as well as the goldfish is a symbol for warding off bad spirits. The inclusion of the goldfish makes it a summer wagashi, as kingyo sukui (goldfish catching with paper nets), is a popular activity during summer festivals in Japan.
Example of nagashi mono
Along with nagashi mono, there are four other types of wagashi characterized by the different forms that they take. They can be steamed (mushi mono), baked (yaki mono), molded (uchi mono) or pressed (oshi mono). These categories simply refer to the way that they are made.
Chestnut Dorayaki, a baked wagashi
Another classification among wagashi is in moisture content so as to indicate their shelf life. They are divided into wet (namagashi) , half-wet (han namagashi) and dry (higashi), in order or shortest to longest shelf life.
Tosenka, a whole white peach in jelly.
The beauty of wagashi is in the intricacies of its designs. The confections are made to take into account the human senses. In Japan, the term used to denote this purpose translates to “An Art of the Five Senses.” Apart from the obvious sense of taste, sight, and smell associated with wagashi, interestingly, the names of each wagashi is chosen based on its euphonious appeal, thereby incorporating our sense of hearing into the experience. Furthermore, the many aforementioned textures are meant to evoke our sense of touch. Wagashi is typically eaten during tea ceremonies, where the tranquil atmosphere of the tea room allows consumers to pay close attention to the subtle distinctions between each confection.
Here in New York there are several places where you can try out these traditional sweets. While most traditional Japanese dessert and tea places will include wagashi as part of the menu, you can even go to Minamoto Kitchoan, a store that specializes in wagashi. All of the sweets pictured here have been purchased at Minamoto Kitchoan. In the upcoming winter months, explore the varieties of seasonal wagashi and warm up with a hot cup of tea!