“Globalization” in the 21st century is an imperfect, selective yet continuing phenomena. Whereas a dessert fiend in most cities will likely have little trouble finding a French-style patisserie serving eclairs, tarts and macarons, desserts from other cultures require venturing off the beaten path in many instances. Certainly, this is the case of desserts from the East. We have previously written guides to Chinese desserts (at Chinese New Year and yum cha), and today, we pen a guide (albeit a rather brief one) to one category of traditional Japanese sweets. Collectively known as wagashi, these sweets are works of art in and of themselves. The distinguishing aspect of wagashi is that by contrast to the decadent gluttony one might feel after consuming a cake or dessert of Western sensibilities, the wagashi‘s sweetness is but a whisper, meant to offset the slight bitterness of an accompanying cup of tea, without overwhelming the rest of the meal. For those raised in the West – familiar with the richness of chocolate and sugar – wagashi is an adventure into a different conception of dessert.
Japanese Wagashi Desserts
Higashi is the umbrella term for dry Japanese desserts. With little water content, higashi can be stored longer than most other wagashi. Falling under this category includes a dry sweet called rakugan, a dry, chalk-like candy made from sugar and soybean flour. Almost tasteless, it’s a bit of an odd one, but fun to look at as it can be found stamped with a myriad of patterns, including flowers, leaves, animals, calligraphy etc.
Another form of higashi, monaka is the name for a confectionery that resembles an oyster with a secret — a soft wafer shell in the shape of a five-petalled sakura flower enclosing a heart of red bean paste. They can be found in many different shapes too.
Hannama-gashi is the umbrella term for sweets with a slighter more water content than those falling under the higashi category. One example, is yatsuhashi — the regional delicacy of Kyoto, and both historically and today, very commonly purchased as a souvenir. Here, bean paste is sandwiched between triangle envelopes of mochi (a sticky, chewy rice-flour dough creation). We saw varieties dusted in cinnamon, icing sugar, matcha powder, and also chocolate! The overall effect is that yatsuhasi reminds us of a wonton dumpling.
Namagashi refers to mochi-like sweets made of rice flour, filled with a sweet red bean paste, and to be consumed within a day or so. Traditionally used for tea ceremonies, namagashi are intricately crafted by hand, and usually reflective of a particular season. They are the haute-couture of Japanese sweets, requiring significant skill to craft. We featured it in a previous travel review. Similarly beautiful in style are the sub-type, sakuramochi, a little orb that resembles an onigri rice ball, albeit in pink. Here, in one bite, you experience for a fleeting moment, the fragrance of the sakura blossom, followed by the salty tang of the pickled leaf, then the delicate creamy sweetness of the azuki bean paste centre wrapped in a soft mochi body.