Wagashi, traditional Japanese sweets, combine fresh, seasonal ingredients with intricate, artful designs, to create delectable desserts that are often as beautiful as they are to taste.
With a deep historical and cultural significance, Japanese sweets, broadly known as okashi, originally referred to fruits and nuts. Given its scarcity, sugar had been reserved only for the imperial family and nobility. It wasn’t until the Portuguese and Chinese introduced large sugar imports to Japan did it appear as an ingredient in Japanese confectionery. As the popularity of the Japanese traditional tea ceremony grew during the Edo Period (1603-1868), so did the demand for the accompanying Japanese sweets, which had a subtle sweetness that balanced the bitter notes of the matcha.
As Japan opened its borders to the world during the Meiji period (1868-1912), the term wagashi, which is derived from the words wa (Japanese) and kashi (sweets), was introduced to differentiate Japanese confections from Western ones. Wagashi tend to be less sweet and have historically been plant-based, not using milk or eggs and relying on agar (made from seaweed) rather than gelatin.
Nowadays wagashi are renowned around the world. They can be found in an infinite array of shapes and designs and are made from ingredients (many of which are featured in our Baking: “Amai” Care Package) that change with the seasons and by region.
Common Types of Wagashi
Daifuku and Mochi
Daifuku are small, mochi (glutinous rice) dumplings filled with anko (sweet red bean paste). They can come in a variety of colors and flavors based on the season. Popular varieties include ichigo (strawberry) daifuku, sakura (cherry blossom) mochi, kusa mochi (lit. “grass mochi”) also known as yomogi mochi, and ohagi/botamochi (mochi covered in, rather than filled with, anko)
Festive bite-sized rice dumplings skewered on a bamboo stick that can often be found tri-colored as hanami dango andenjoyed during hanami (cherry blossom viewing), or as mitarashi, covered in a sweet soy sauce.
Small, artfully shaped steamed or baked buns that can be made from a variety of flours. They have a thin outer layer and are typically filled with a sweet bean filling, although other fillings can be used.
Dorayaki consists of two small fluffy pancakes filled with anko and gets its name from its shape whichresembles a dora (Japanese gong).
A small block of jelly typically made from adzuki, sugar, and agar, a gelatin substitute derived from algae. Additional fillings may include kuri (chestnuts) or matcha powder.
Dry, decorative sugar treats pressed in a wooden mold that come in many colors and shapes based on the season and occasion.
Tiny, sugar treats that come in a variety of colors and flavors and are shaped like little balls of confetti with prongs.
About the author: Kevin Kilcoyne’s passion for Japan has evolved to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture. You can find Kevin on Instagram (@waruishouten) where he posts his photography and illustration work.