50 SHADES OF TOKYO DESSERTS | SHADE 6
Ever wondered what Japanese eat for dessert? Have you heard of wagashi? I briefly mentioned these delicate and beautiful creations on the blog, but it is time to give them a proper feature in my dessert series because they carry substantial significance in traditional Japanese food culture.
Wagashi are equivalent to dessert in Western context and encompass wide spectrum of sweet treats typically made from natural plant ingredients (which makes them so much more guilt-free ;) ). These confections embody Japanese sense of perfectionism as well as unique sense of beauty. Reflecting various aspects of nature and the changing seasons, the sweets are exquisitely shaped and crafted earning them the name of edible art. Wagashi evolved into an art form during Edo period in the ancient Imperial capital, Kyoto and have been integral part of Japanese tea ceremony. They provide a finishing touch to the ceremony, with a central role of conveying messages, representing the seasons, etc. Wagashi are meant to be appreciated not only by one’s taste buds, but with all five senses. First, the shapes, colors and designs of wagashi with their attractive and tempting appearance stimulate the sense of sight. Second, the flavors of its natural components appeal to the sense of taste. The subtle pleasing aroma, which is more subtle than that of Western sweets but good in bringing out the flavor of the matcha tea, captivates the sense of smell. The fourth is the sense of touch given by their texture when we take the confections by hand, cut them for serving, or place them in our mouth. As for the fifth sense, hearing: the poetic names of wagashi often evoke some scene in nature or a season and are supposed to ignite our imagination when we hear them. One example would be “cherry trees in bloom” very common in Spring. I must say though, as beautiful as they look they taste quite different from your conventional confections and might have acquired taste for many. The main reason for this is the key ingredient of wagashi: azuki, or red bean paste mixed with sugar. Coming from Georgia where red beans come only in one form – savory mixture complimented by spices and herbs – tasting red beans in sweet context was quite shocking for my palate. The beans are cooked with sugar, then mashed, and finely strained to produce a smooth azuki bean paste called gozen an, or, by leaving some of the solid bits of the beans intact, it becomes a whole azuki bean paste or ogura an. These two pastes are the mainstay of wagashi, while other beans, such as the white azuki beans and the white kidney beans, are used to produce a white bean paste called shiro an. These different bean pastes become the basis for the wide variety of wagashi. Other ingredients include rice; kanten – a fiber-rich gelatin made from seaweed; and wasambonto – one of the oldest domestic sugar with its powdery smooth texture, elegant taste and fragrance. Do you see why I said wagashi is guilt-free? You eat vegetable-based dessert which is rich in protein and fiber! It should also be noted that because of their natural ingredients, wagashi have very short shelf life and some are even meant to be eaten the same day. It is very interesting to know that in the past wagashi was served only to men. Sugar was expensive, and sweets were a rare delicacy. So they were served to the guests outside the home at official receptions which were dominated by men. Ironically, while in the past wagashi were very rare and only served at business or formal occasions to men, nowadays the main market for sweets is aimed at women. There is a confection for almost every seasonal festival and every milestone in an individual’s life. From confections of bean paste shaped into cherry blossoms, to sweet dumpling on skewers wagashi comes in countless forms (same way we have eclairs, soufflés, tarts etc.). I have not tried them all yet, but I developed particular fondness for the unbaked handmade namagashi (portrayed in the photos above) which are made by shaping sweet bean paste. They are so stunning to look at and have very subtle sweetness and delicate taste. In the tea ceremony namagashi are considered to be an ultimate wagashi, because they do not keep, thus reflecting an idea that each ceremony is unique occasion to be prized. They indeed go particularly well with tea and perfectly balance out the bitterness of matcha.
You can get wagashi anywhere you go although I frequent two stores which never fail to surprise me with their selection of these exquisite delicious morsels. Toraya has been perfecting their craftsmanship for over 500 years now and is considered to be one of the most luxurious and venerable wagashi stores in Japan. I visited their store in Tokyo Midtown a few times now, where you can not only by the dessert, but also get some souvenirs and admire their wagashi-themed exhibitions. Hachinoya is another little store I discovered during my visit to beautiful neigborhood of Jiyugaoka. They sell a few varieties of wagashi which are all very tasty. If you want to savor these sweets like Japanese do then head to Kosoan, a tea room inside 100-year-old house. Comfortably seated on the tatami floors, you will be able to indulge in wagashi paired with an outstanding bowl of matcha tea and admire the Japanese garden outside. There is also a wide selection of wagashi in the dessert section of depachikas, amazing underground food parlors in high-end department stores. You might even want to take some home as a souvenir! I love visiting wagashi stores. Namagashi are gorgeous and never fail to surprise with their new creative and beautiful designs. I highly recommend you try one during your visit, it is a unique stimulating experience you will hardly get anywhere outside Japan.