Elegant appearance and refined subtle sweetness, Wagashi, an Japanese confectionery is an art itself. This plant based confectionery made mainly from azuki beans and rice flour are vegan friendly, making its way into global culinary scenes. Made by the artisan, these come in different colors and shapes and are a feast for the eye and the mouth.
An art of the five senses, wagashi evokes the four seasons and landscapes of Japan. Most artistic of all are jōnamagashi, a special delight to see and savor. When compared, the Western confectionaries express the season with fruits, but Japanese confectioneries express the season with colors and shapes. These jōnamagashi often use natural motifs, such as plants, animals, and seasonal scenes which are represented realistically or abstractly. The richness of colors is also one of the charms of these sweets.
From coloring to shaping, the skills of the artisan shine through. The colors are applied exquisitely to the dough, and various tools are used to create delicate forms. An indispensable tool for making these sweets is a triangular spatula. It is a wooden spatula in the shape of a triangular prism, and is used to make lines by pressing down on each side. The three sides of the spatula are not all the same. The thickness of the line can be changed on two sides at different angles, and a double line can be made on the other side. It may look like a simple tool, but it can be used to create the delicate beauty of jōnamagashi.
Many Japanese sweets stores have been in business for more than 100 years. While there are traditional flavors and signature products that have been loved for a long time, new products are always being developed to reflect the trends of the times and the seasons. In Ginza, one of the most hotly contested districts for wagashi stores, one of the long established store, Seigetsudo, has been constantly striving to create new Japanese confectionery since its establishment in 1907, and continues to do so today. Under the family motto, “One generation,one confectionary”, where every owner should be making their confectionary that matches the time of their generation,”Otoshibumi”, a steamed dessert that third generation owner, Seichiro Mizuhara created has been a signature product since its first production.
A steamed dessert in two layers, Otoshibumi is a delicate sweet with egg yolk anko (red bean) wrapped with smooth, pureed red bean paste. It melts in the mouth and has a subtle sweetness. Made by the third generation owner, Seichiro Mizuhara, Made by the third generation owner, Seichiro Mizuhara, he made this dessert to illustrate a scene of a broken-hearted woman. He had an image that this woman was too shy to give her love letter and instead, she balled it up and dropped it in the water for it to flow away.
Otoshibumi directly translates as “dropped letter” where the ephemeral moments of love of this woman are well depicted in this sweet with the egg yolk anko as her feeling and the outer red bean paste as the paper that wrapped her feelings. These two red bean paste when steamed into Otoshibumi, create an elegant sweetness and gentle melt-in-your-mouth texture which somewhat has a similar sweet warmth when you experience having a crush on someone. While not all wagashi are vegan-friendly and colorful, in many cases like this Otoshibumi, wagashi has indirect names which make the customer think about the story behind the dessert.
Originally A Fruit
One may have an image of wagashi (Japanese sweets) as a dessert often served at tea ceremonies. However, the word “kashi(gashi)” originally referred to fruits and nuts. Even in the Japanese-Portuguese dictionary "Nippo Dictionary" written in 1603, the year the Edo shogunate was established, it is said that "kashi are fruits”. It is believed that in prehistoric times, when there was no technology to process food, people felt the sweetness of fruits such as chestnuts and persimmons as a special blessing and distinguished them from staple foods.
Around the Yayoi period, dango (Japanese dumplings) are made by grinding nuts, removing the scum with water, and rolling them up. This is said to be the beginning of dango culture in Japan. Eventually, "mochi," the oldest processed food in Japan, was born in 934.For such a long time, Japanese have been familiar with mochi and dango, and this became a unique feature of the wagashi culture today.
Wagashi began to change its form to what we know it today around the Nara Period (710-784) when Karagashi, a type of confectionery, was introduced among the upper class which then gradually spread to the common people. This confectionery was made mainly from rice flour or wheat flour, sweetened or salted, and fried in oil. By the Heian period (794-1185), Tsubaki Mochi, a sweet bean inside mochi and sandwiched between Camellia leaves were introduced. This is said to be the origin and the oldest Japanese sweets which was served to the court nobles according to the “Tale of Genji”. In chapter 34 of the Tale of Genji, there were illustrations of the court nobles playing kemari (kind of football) and eating the sweets afterwards.
A scene from Tale of Genji in chapter 34 with court nobles playing kemari
Burgeoning of Wagashi
After the Kamakura period (1185-1333), Japanese confectionery took a dramatic turn. The monks who came back from China brought in new food culture. Tea and wagashi (Japanese sweets) are now inseparable, and the custom of the tea ceremony, which is common today, was said to be introduced during this period. Inside Boki Ekotoba, a pictorial scroll depicting the biography of a priest of Hongan-ji Temple of the Shinshu sect of Buddhism, there is a tea ceremony scene with monks walking down the corridor carrying large trays. It is believed that they were carrying sweets to be served during the tea ceremony. However, from the records of tea ceremonies during the Warring States period in the 16th century, it is believed that fruits and knotted kelp were served on trays, instead of sugary sweets as we know of today.
Tea ceremony illustrated in Boki Ekotoba (Source: National Diet Library )
By around the 16th century, merchants and missionaries from Portugal and other countries came to Japan to trade and spread Christianity along with Western confectionary culture. This new confectionary culture brought about another turning point in Japan. Previously due to religious prohibitions, eggs were not eaten. In wagashi, which are basically made from plant-derived ingredients, the use of eggs was the only exception. As the warring age ended and peace came in during the Edo period, people focused on confectionery production. It was during this period that the unique wagashi that we eat today was born. In castle towns and gate towns all over Japan, Kyoto and Edo competed with each other on their different styles of sweets, and ingenious names and designs were born one after another.
And in the Meiji era (1868-1912), Western culture was rapidly introduced and had a great impact on wagashi. With the introduction of ovens, the production of baked goods became possible.
Castella, a sponge cake made using sugar, flour, eggs, and starchy syrup brought in from Portugal (Source: National Diet Library)
Aisatsu (Greetings) Monaka (Vegan Friendly)
The origin of today's monaka is said to be a confectionery that was sold at the rice cracker shop "Takemura Ise" in Yoshiwara in the mid-Edo period. A record tells that such confectionery was a round dried confectionery sprinkled with sugar, something similar to a rice cracker. At that time, there was no azuki bean jam, mochi, or any kinds of fillings inside. Eventually, monaka filled with azuki bean jam as we see it now gradually became the mainstream style. When Western confectionary culture progressed in the Meiji Era, so did the mold technology, and various shapes have been produced, from round and square ones to Daruma, flowers, animals, etc. Now, there are a variety of shapes and flavors and can also be filled with chocolate, ice cream, whipped cream, basically anything. Of the many, Seigetsudo, the oldest wagashi store in Ginza district has developed a rather unique monaka. Based on the concept of "conveying feelings and connecting hearts together”, a monaka in the shape of a handshape has been produced to commemorate the 111th anniversary of the company's founding. Using glutinous rice and red bean paste, this is a vegan-friendly snack and it's a great gift to give to someone you wish to share your appreciation with or just as a gift in general.
Aisatsu (Greetings) Monaka by Seigetsudo
Other Vegan Friendly Sweets
Usually classified into three main categories: namagashi (fresh confectionery), han namagashi (half-dry confectionery) and higashi (dry confectionery), wagashi or Japanese sweets happen to be mostly vegan friendly (there are exceptions). Monaka falls under han namagashi (half-dry confectionary) and are vegan friendly since it uses glutinous rice. However, agar is another ingredients used in watashi that is vegan friendly. When sweets are made by using agar, it turn out jelly-like and is called Yokan. Yokan falls under namagashi (fresh confectionary). This sweet is also cruelty-free, Kosher, and Halal as well. Yokan, a thick jelly dessert made with agar and red bean paste usually sold as a block, is one of the traditional Japanese desserts that dates back thousands of years. While most look similar, however, the taste varies by store. At Seigetsudo, their yokan has subtle sweetness made with the unchanging techniques of the first generation owner, Kahei Mizuhara.
Yokan from Seigetsudo
Ginza Wagashi Shop Hunting
Since wagashi was first introduced to Japan in the distant past, many artisans have continued to refine their skills, and there are countless varieties with many shops. However, looking into a shop with history and prestige will surely be the best way to taste and feel the real traditional sweets. To help visitors travel around Ginza district to find such wagashi stores, “Wagashi Map” has been made in several languages. The map can be picked up at Seigetsudo and starting the day out from the long established store to the newest will surely be able to trace history and also, see how the wagashi culture gradually turns out more “global”.