Wagashi – Edible Works of Art!
Wagashi (Japanese confectionary) make a wonderful compliment to Japanese tea!
Wagashi are delicious traditional Japanese confectionaries that embody the four seasons and masterfully fashioned by artisans – a skill that has been passed on from generation to generation – to represent various motifs of nature and come in all colours and shapes and are a feast for the eyes as they are for the mouth…
The main ingredients used are beans, grains, sesame seeds, potatoes, various fruits and nuts, and sugar. They are low in calories and high in vegetable protein and therefore very healthful. This is principally why the Japanese have been enjoying Wagashi for centuries and the reason so many health-conscious Westerners are now progressively including them into their diets.
These flavoursome edible works of art can be eaten between meals, as a dessert and when drinking tea. As a matter of fact, they were traditionally served during the tea ceremony, known as Chanoyu, to sweeten the palate which would counteract the bitter taste of matcha, a powdered tea whisked with hot water to make an earthy-tasting froth-like beverage. Furthermore, it was through the popularity of the tea ceremony that a large number of Wagashi became available, and over the years, they gradually developed into the exquisite confectionaries loved by many today.
The history of Wagashi is a long one and dates back to the Yayoi Era (300 BC – 300 AC). In ancient times Wagashi was nothing more than servings of natural fruits, berries and nuts – very few sweet things were available in Japan at that time. Then, along with Buddhism, China introduced Japan to the skill of processing grain and greatly influenced the development of Wagashi – Mochi and Dango, forms of rice cakes, were soon being made. The proficiency of the Wagashi makers advanced even further with the introduction of sugar by Portuguese traders in the 16th century. By the Edo period (1603 – 1867), Wagashi-making had evolved into an art form and lead to artisans applying sophisticated techniques to make designs and colours more natural. Wagashi soon flourished to various regions, including Kyoto, and competition within the trade became rife.
The word “Wagashi” was coined during the end of the Taisho Era (1912 – 1926) to differentiate between Japanese confectionaries and Western ones called Yogashi. Although Wagashi has been influenced by many foreign cultures over the centuries, they differ considerably to Western confectionaries by the method of cooking and use of natural ingredients, and they have always predominantly reflected the Japanese sense of art and beauty. And for that reason alone, Wagashi are absolutely Japanese.
As previously mentioned, Wagashi make a wonderful compliment to Japanese tea, which, today, is more commonly drank in the home by steeping tea leaves in a teapot, therefore, you don’t have to participate in a tea ceremony to appreciate the delectable taste of both. What’s more, matcha (powdered tea) is now being used in Japanese cuisine and is included in many types of Wagashi such as Kasutera (Castella sponge cake). It must be stressed that all high-quality Wagashi are still handmade by Japanese craftsmen who use only the finest ingredients and that includes top-quality powdered teas. Therefore, this same approach must be applied when making them at home.
When sold in retail outlets that specialise in Wagashi, such as Minamoto Kitchoan at 44 Piccadilly, London, who also stock top-quality Japanese teas produced by the multi-award winning tea manufacturer, Otsuka Green Tea Co. Ltd, each Wagashi is exquisitely wrapped and presented in beautiful packaging and make wonderful gifts for any occasion. We highly recommend you make a visit to Minamoto Kitchoan to try out the many different varieties and to let your imagination be inspired by their attractive designs.
There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of different kinds of Wagashi and like the Japanese tea ceremony, they are best enjoyed in the company of friends. But it is equally pleasurable to eat them alone whilst engaging in moments of serenity. And like meaningful majestic experiences in life, each one should be enjoyed and savoured for its uniqueness.
Special thanks to Japan Fooding Ltd.
This article first appeared in Cakes & Sugarcraft issue 110, autumn 2010.
Cakes & Sugarcraft magazine is an inspirational and informative magazine for anyone who enjoys making and decorating cakes. Each issue of Cakes & Sugarcraft is packed with cake decorating, cookie, cupcake and sugarcraft projects for all skill levels from the absolute beginner to the professional. Written by some of the leading names in cake decoration, each project is lavishly photographed with easy to follow instructions. Other regular features include recipes, articles, the latest news and events, cake decorating book reviews, product and technique updates, industry features, prizes and giveaways.