Wagashi (Japanese traditional confectionery) is a whole category of confectionary made using traditional production techniques in Japan. The term wagashi is used to differentiate traditional products from European style confectionery which first entered Japan after the Meiji period (1868-1912).
It included togashi (Chinese sweets) introduced by a Japanese envoy to Tang Dynasty China, and nanbangashi (a variety of sweets derived from Portuguese or Spanish recipes) that missionaries bought with them.
Wagashi was developed as a foodstuff to be eaten during the tea ceremony with light green tea or fuller-bodied green tea and, was expected to be appealing to taste as well as visually attractive. Normally, dried confectionary is eaten when partaking of light green tea whereas, fresh confectionary is provided with the fuller-bodied green tea.
It is often served with Japanese green tea or green powdered tea, sweet confectionaries are common.
The kind of major ingredients are relatively a few, such as sugar, rice, wheat, and red beans, which are used for various wagashi.
White sugar has been used as an ingredient only since recently as it was not easy to obtain during the Edo period and wasanbon (refined sugar) sugar is said to have been contributed to the development of wagashi with its unique flavor and the right degree of sweetness. Since persimmon was the sweetest extravagance prior to the use of white sugar, it is understandable the subtle flavors of wagashi.
Also, as mentioned above, wagashi are also required to incorporate artistic elements. During the summer season wagashi products are produced using starch, and so on to instill a sense of refreshment; each single ingredient is chosen carefully to express the season. Amongst wagashi, there is a sub-category called Manufactured Confectionary where the product is particularly exquisite and this product is made of edible ingredients used in making wagashi but, express an array of traditional Japanese themes related to the beauty of nature.
If the moisture content of the wagashi is less than 20 %, it is called higashi (干菓子 or 乾菓子, dried or desiccated wagashi) and, ones above 40 % (yokan (adzuki-bean jelly) is over 30 %) is nama-gashi (fresh wagashi), ones from 20 % to 40 % is hannama-gashi (soft, semi-baked wagashi). Wagashi is roughly classified into these three types.
Examples of Wagashi Manufacturers
Toraya (Akasaka, Minato-ku Ward, Tokyo Prefecture) (Kyoto): Founded in the late 16th century.
Shibafune Koide (Kanazawa): Founded in 1917. Shibafune' (literally 'Firewood boat') is rice crackers coated in ginger sugar.
Kawabata Doki (Kyoto): Founded in the early 16th century. The Kawabata family documents at the time of the foundation has become a cultural asset of Kyoto City. From the time of its foundation until the time Emperor Meiji's Tokyo Gyoko (moving to Tokyo) (March 1869), they served confectionaries called Oasamono (sticky rice cake for breakfast) to dairi (Imperial Palace). Famous for chimaki (cake wrapped in bamboo leaves).
Tawaraya (Kyoto): Founded in 1755. One of the oldest establishments among wagashi confectioners that remain based in Kyoto. Orders are taken from many places including: the Imperial Household Agency, Shokoku-ji Temple, Nanzen-ji Temple, and so on. The Karasuma store has been set up as Kyo-gashi (Kyoto Confectionary) museum.
Saomono (traditional sweets, such as yokan, that are cut in bite-sized pieces from long blocks)
Kano Shojuan (Otsu): Founded in 1958. It serves as purveyor of the Imperial household and also produces daily foodstuffs such as sesame tofu.
Mochitake (Inuyama City, Aichi Prefecture): Famous for wagashi made by wrapping fine chestnuts of Minokamo City in mochi (rice cake). Unique handmade including manju (bun stuffed with adzuki-bean paste) made with brown sugar from Haterumajima Island in Okinawa Prefecture.
Kashuan (Nagoya City, Aichi Prefecture): Famous for wagashi using eggs of Nagoya Cochin (egg of a famous Japanese native breed chicken). Kashiwaya: Founded in 1852. Famous for thin skinned manju.
Kyoto Style Wagashi
Kyoto style wagashi is delivered to the Imperial Court, nobles, temples, shrines, and tea houses, and are categorized as 'Jogashi' (confectionaries in high-quality) ordered for particular celebrations or 'oman' (abbreviation of manju), 'dango' (dumpling), and 'mochi-gashi' (rice cake sweets) for every day consumption. Confectioners who prepared the former are called 'kashisho' (confectionary craftsmen) or 'onkashi-tsukasa' (confectionary master), and so on, while ones who prepare the latter 'omanya-san' (manju manufacturers) or 'omochiya-san' (rice case manufacturers). To this day, there are still shops signed as '... mochi' (... rice cake) that also offer udon (wheat noodles), sushi, ohagi (rice ball coated with sweetened red beans, soybean flour or sesame). Presently, the difference between them become unclear. Jogashi has been finely developed as osonae-gashi (wagashi for offerings) and confectionaries for the tea ceremony, and also various kinds of confectionaries for everyday consumption have been made since people have many types of wagashi which is suited for every annual event. This tradition is reflected in Kyoto style wagashi today.
Jogashi is made to look beautiful by utilizing the following raw and intermediate materials and methods.
Konashi (Steamed Cake)
White bean paste (white kidney bean or white azuki bean paste), and weak wheat flour are mixed and steamed to which sugar water is added. Coloring is added and the material is formed into many varied shapes. It has developed into variously including 'Mikaiko' (literally, red ume plum to be flowered) formed plum buds and 'Tatsuta-gawa River' made into autumn leaves, and filling of kuzu-gashi (Japanese sweets made from arrowroot).
Kinton (Mashed Sweet Potatoes)
Followings are colored variously, pureed into mince, and decorated on the core of An (bean jam) and others to express the seasons; Joyo-nerikiri which steamed and strained yamaimo (Japanese yam) is simmered with sugar and cooked, kinton-an or ama-an which is white sweet bean paste jellied by kanten (Japan agar), and nerikiri which white sweet bean paste is mixed with gyuhi (Turkish delight).
Water is added to flour of uncooked sticky rice and blanched in hot water, and while hot, sugar is added and kneaded. Used in summer confectionery such as 'ayu' (sweetfish shaped confection), 'chofu' (a waffle wrapper with gooey gyuhi inside).
Authentic arrowroot flour added water is strained, added sugar and heated to gelatinize. Kuzukiri (translucent sliced arrowroot) and kuzu-manju (sweet bean paste balls covered in clear arrowroot gel) bring to mind a sense of refreshment. Also, 'kuzuyaki' is a cubed confection requiring high technique of simply roasting all sides of it.
It refers to yamaimo yam. The skin of Joyo manju (steamed yeast bun with filling) such as 'Oribe Manju' is made of grated yamaimo with sugar and joyo-ko (fine grade wheat flour). Sweet bean past is wrapped in this skin and steamed. Also, grated yamaimo yam, sugar, water, and karukan powder (rough-grained rice flour) are mixed together and once steamed are known as karukan, a type of steamed cake. Steamed yamaimo yam is strained and cooked with sugar is called joyo-nerikiri. In whatever application, it is vital to utilize the unique aroma and original "whiteness" of yamaimo yams.
Besides this, it is used in multiple ways as an intermediate ingredient in confectionaries such as: 'Domyo-ji Temple,' 'Awayuki' (literally, light snowfall), and 'Kingyoku' (literally, brocade balls). Prepared as an intermediate ingredient, there are some processes to be cooked, steamed, mixed and kneaded, and skipping even only one of the processes may result in a poorer tasting confectionary. Also the techniques of bringing out the flavor is required by selecting ingredient carefully, cooking properly suited for each ingredient such as skimming the scum. Furthermore, at the end of the process, to capture the sense of the season, the confectionary must resonate with the place where it is to be consumed. Jogashi can only be made by those with refined taste and a solid technique. However, the technique and sense of manufacture depend on each confectioner and shop, and the sensitive differences show their originality.