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The Sweet World of Wagashi

The Sweet World of Wagashi

What lies behind this term? Something delicious: Wagashi refers to a type of sweets in Japan. From Dango and Dorayaki to Mochi and Taiyaki, Yokan, and Yatsuhashi: a little journey into the realm of Japanese treats.

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Recipes in this blog post:

» Manju - steamed cakes with anko

Japanese sweets with character

Sweet tooths find plenty to indulge in Japan. Because wherever you look – supermarkets, street stalls, souvenir shops, and department stores – you'll find sweets with various shapes, colors, and fillings. Rice cakes, filled dumplings and pancakes, jelly and chocolate, cakes, and candies. Traditional blends with modern, creating something unique that exists only in Japan. Since sugar arrived on the mainland in the 14th century, most Japanese enjoy snacking and gift their loved ones with these extravagant delicacies. The eyes feast too: aesthetics are a central aspect of Japanese confectionery. Wagashi 和菓子 refers to typical Japanese sweets that are an integral part of the tea ceremony. But how do you distinguish Wagashi from "ordinary" sweets?

Wagashi served on a flower plate
  • A dough with delicious filling is the standard recipe for Wagashi in Japan.
  • Their decorative shape and aroma often reflect the respective season and other elements of nature. Especially Namagashi, specifically designed for the tea ceremony.
  • They often consist of plant-based ingredients like rice and a paste made from red beans called Azuki. For this paste called Anko, sugar is added to boiled and often pureed beans.
  • As a result, they usually don't taste as sweet as Western sweets.
  • This makes Wagashi relatively healthy: milk, butter, and creams are nowhere to be found in traditional variations. Many Wagashi are vegan. Still, be cautious of wheat flour and sugar!
  • Small portions in the form of balls, slices, flowers, or animals ensure moderate indulgence.

High-quality Wagashi also often have a shorter shelf life, which should be considered when buying them as souvenirs. The plant-based components are more perishable, and most Japanese sweets also lack preservatives. Especially the aforementioned Namagashi, small beautiful treats for the tea ceremony, are made fresh.

Mochi: The rice wagashi family

Have you tried Mochi? These rice cakes are a classic among Japanese specialties and an integral part of festivals like New Year. They are made from sticky Mochigome rice, shaped, and steamed. They don't necessarily have to be sweet. The cakes come in many variations, influenced by the season. In spring, for example, people enjoy Sakura Mochi, while on Children's Day, May 5th, leaf-shaped dark Bekomochi with brown sugar are popular. Like most Wagashi, Mochi can also be filled, in which case they are called Daifuku. A popular gift available in various colors and flavors.

Mochi has another relative besides Daifuku: Dango. These Wagashi are smaller rice cakes usually eaten in sets of three on a skewer. Unlike Daifuku, the filling is on the outside for Dango: it can be coated with Azuki beans, as well as Matcha (green tea), sesame, and syrup. Particularly popular during the cherry blossom season is Botchan Dango, a three-colored version (pink, white, and green). In the southern Kyushu region, people like to enjoy them with sweet potatoes inside.

Also made from rice but savory are Senbei. These small rice crackers with a soy flavor may not be considered sweets, but they are also part of Wagashi. They are often served to guests at parties and are a popular souvenir for travelers. Like other Wagashi, they pair well with Matcha tea. They too come in various flavors and shapes, such as those resembling flowers.

Baked happiness

While rice is popular in Japan, the imagination of Wagashi makers goes beyond that. When you steam or bake round wheat cakes and fill them like Daifuku Mochi, you get Manju. Like their savory relatives, Mantou, they also came to Japan from China.

Other baked wheat Wagashi includes Dorayaki and Taiyaki. The last two syllables 焼き stand for "grill" or "bake". Dorayaki consists of two small fluffy pancakes with a hidden filling, usually made from red beans. You can find these in every supermarket or convenience store. Be cautious: at first glance, the filling of Dorayaki may look like chocolate.

On the other hand, Taiyaki is not packaged and is often encountered as street food. These are small fish-shaped waffles filled with various delicious ingredients: Anko bean paste, pudding, or chocolate, but also cheese or sweet potato in the savory version. Taiyaki enthusiasts can even buy special waffle irons to bake these fish-shaped treats at home.

A dream made from special sugar

Not everything in the world of Japanese Wagashi is made of dough – take Amanatto, for example. What may sound like sticky, fermented soybeans is actually harmless: they are simply soybeans cooked in syrup, sweetened, and then dried.

Not everything sweet is sugar, at least not the same sugar we know. A traditional Japanese sweetener is called Mizuame and is made from starch converted to sugar using enzymes. Like many things in the country, this syrup is often made from rice. Mizuame can also be eaten on its own. Wasanbon is also found in many Wagashi and is derived from Chinese sugar cane. The hand-processed sugar is finer and has a slightly more umami taste than Western cane sugar.

Higashi and Rakugan, which often use Wasanbon, are a unique category of Wagashi. They are dry sweets consisting mostly of sugar: usually colorful candies with decorations in various flavors or wafers. Similar to Mochi, Higashi and Rakugan are kneaded from rice flour, Wasanbon, and water, but then dried in molds. They melt in the mouth when eaten.

For those who are fans of gummy bears and the like, Yokan will be exciting: This is a block-shaped sweet jelly made from Azuki beans and Agar-Agar, a seaweed-based gelatin substitute. Yokan is as colorful and diverse in flavor as all other Wagashi.

Yokan pieces portioned

Journey through a sweet Japan

Almost every city in Japan has its own special sweet. Here are some of the local Wagashi from south to north:

  • Nagasaki: Castella is the local specialty here. This moist sponge cake was brought to the port city by Portuguese traders.
  • Hiroshima: Maple trees line Momijidani Park on the famous Miyajima Island. Therefore, the local sweet is also shaped like a maple leaf: Momiji Manju, cakes made from buckwheat and rice, filled with Anko, chocolate, Matcha tea cream, vanilla cream, and more.
  • Kyoto: One of the most famous sweet souvenirs from Kyoto is Yatsuhashi, which is similar to Daifuku Mochi made from rice and sugar and usually filled with Anko bean paste. However, these triangular sweets have cinnamon in the dough and are sold either raw or dried.
  • Nagoya: In Nagoya, they prefer cake made from non-glutinous rice called Uiro. Unlike Mochi, this rectangular pastry can be sliced.
  • Tokyo: Just like the capital, its specialty is more Western-oriented. A somewhat different type of coffee-flavored jelly, Coffee Jelly, comes from the Kanto region and is often served in a glass or with ice in the summer.
  • Sapporo: On the northern island of Hokkaido, buns made from wheat and buckwheat flour and filled are called Meme Oyaki. Besides Anko, they are also enjoyed with cocoa and chocolate cream.

Dorayaki Japanese pancakes

No. of persons2 personsNo. of persons
Preparation timeca. 10 minutes Preparation time
Total Timeca. 20 minutesTotal Time
Level of difficultyeasyLevel of difficulty
Dishmain mealDish
Lactose-freeLactose-free
EggsEggs
Kitchenware Kitchenware
Pan , Mixing bowl and mixer , Ladle , Serving Plate
Dorayaki mit Anko-Füllung
List of ingredients
100g Weizenmehl Type 405
2 eggs
1 tbsp honey
40g sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp water
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tin of Anko (sweet red adzuki bean paste)
Kochende Miss Oryoki
Preparation
Step 1

Place the sugar, eggs and honey in a bowl and whisk until frothy. Then sift the flour and baking powder into the bowl with the other ingredients. Stir in the water until the dough is smooth. Then leave to rest in the fridge for approx. 10 minutes.

Step 2

Heat the cast iron pan over a medium heat and add the oil. Use a ladle to transfer the batter from the bowl to the pan. The patties should not be too big, but only about the size of the palm of your hand. Now bake the dorayaki patties until they are lightly browned on one side and then turn them over.

Step 3

Once both sides are golden brown, remove from the pan. Now spread the middle of a pancake with a thick layer of about 50g Anko and fold the other half into a sandwich. They taste best served hot!

Step 4

Tipp: If you're not a fan of traditional Anko bean paste, you can also fill the pancakes with vanilla or chocolate pudding. Other delicious fillings like chestnut, Matcha, pumpkin, or even taro can be found in Dorayaki, depending on the region and season.

Manju - steamed cakes with anko

No. of persons12 Manju ballsNo. of persons
Total Timeca. 60 minutesTotal Time
Level of difficultyeasyLevel of difficulty
DishDessertDish
Caloriesca. 125kcal per ballCalories
Kitchenware Kitchenware
Bamboo or metal steamer , Plate
Colorful manju with bear face

Picture credits: Author: yoppy | Flickr | License

List of ingredients
80g brown sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
100g wheat flour
2 tbsp cornstarch
Anko or Koshian (smooth red bean paste)
Kochende Miss Oryoki
Preparation
Step 1

Mix the sugar with 3 tablespoons of water in a small pan and boil until the sugar has dissolved. Leave the syrup to cool.

Step 2

Cut a sheet of baking paper into 12 squares and line a baking sheet with the parchment paper. Roll 12 small balls from the bean paste and place them on the sheet. It's best to moisten your hands beforehand to make it easier.

Step 3

Mix the baking powder in a small bowl with half a teaspoon of water. Once the syrup from the first step has cooled, stir the mixture into it, then add the flour and cornstarch. Knead the dough thoroughly into a ball. Wrap it in plastic wrap and let it rest for 15 minutes.

Step 4

Then roll out the dough on a floured surface. Use a cookie cutter or glass to cut circles with a diameter of about 6-7 cm. Place a bean paste ball in the center of each circle. Fold the dough around it, sealing it at one point. With the sealed side down, place the Manju back on the parchment paper and cover them with a damp cloth to prevent drying out.

Step 5

Fill the pot of the steamer with water and bring it to a boil. Place the Manju, still on the parchment paper, on the steamer. Steam the Manju for about 10 to 12 minutes on the highest setting.

Step 6

Tip: Alternatively, try filling the Manju with a teaspoon of vanilla pudding or chocolate, or enhance the dough with matcha powder or cocoa for added flavor.

Matcha tea view in the store »
Matcha bowls view in the store »
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