和菓子/Wagashi are traditional Japanese confections often served with tea. The roots of Wagashi can be traced back 2,000 years when Japan’s oldest processed food, Mochi (rice cake) was made.
The introduction of green tea from China led the development of Japanese tea ceremony and Wagashi evolved accordingly. A lot of unique Wagashi were created during the Edo period (1603-1867) when there was a national isolation policy, and peace during this time contributed a lot to the improvement. Later in the Meiji period (1868-1912), exchanges with other countries flourished and new kinds of Wagashi were made using modern ovens and other devices from overseas.
There are no set rules concerning what ingredients to be used.
Wagashi are typically made from plant-based ingredients such as beans, peas, rice, rice flour, wheat flour, sugar, agar-agar, chestnuts, sesame, tea, fruits, etc. Animal products are rarely used (the exception is the use of chicken eggs).
Here is a list of typical Wagashi that can be found everywhere in Japan, and some are even sold at food stands during festivals. Different places have different flavours of Wagashi using local products.
・餡蜜/Anmitsu: Chilled agar jelly cubes (called 寒天/Kanten) with fruits and sugar syrup.
・ぼた餅/Botamochi: A sweet rice ball wrapped with あんこ/Anko (Red bean paste).
・草餅/Kusa mochi: A sweet mochi mixed with Japanese mugwort called yomogi. Anko is inside.
・葛餅/Kuzumochi: Rice cakes made of Kuzuko (a starch powder made from the root of the kudzu plant. It is used in many traditional East Asian cuisine)
・蕨餅/Warabimochi: A jelly-like confection made from Bracken starch covered with きな粉/Kinako, sweet toasted soybean flour powder.
・饅頭/Manju: Steamed cakes of red bean paste surrounded by a flour mixture.
・団子/Dango: A sweet Japanese dumpling, commonly skewered on a stick (often flavored with soy source).
・どら焼き/Dorayaki: A round and flat Wagashi. Red bean paste is placed in between castella.
・今川焼き/Imagawayaki: Red bean paste is surrounded inside of hot fried dough. It has a round shape.
・鯛焼き/Taiyaki: It is similar to Imagawayaki, but shaped like a 鯛/Tai fish/sea bream (sea bream is traditionally eaten at celebrations to bring in good luck in Japan).
・金平糖/Kompeito: Crystal, star-shaped sugar candy available in many colors
・お汁粉/Oshiruko: A hot dessert made from red bean paste in a liquid, soup form, with small rice cakes in it.
・八ツ橋/Yatsuhashi: Thin sheets of sweetened mochi folded in a triangle, and a ball of red bean paste is inside. Available in different flavors but the most common is cinnamon.
・羊羹/Yokan: A solid block of red bean paste, hardened with agar and additional sugar. One of the oldest wagashi and many seasonal ingredients are added inside.
The names of Wagashi are usually made after poetry, natural scenery, or historical events. It takes a lot of work to make wagashi for its delicateness. A sense of the passing time and seasons can be appreciated by the seasonal changes in the Wagashi offered in shops and at events.
For example, a round-rice cake called 鏡餅/Kagami-mochi is placed at home on New year’s day as an offering to a deity, and 菱餅/Hishi-mochi (three differently colored diamond shaped mochi) and 雛あられ/Hina-arare (bite-sized sweet Japanese cracker) are displayed and served on the Doll’s festival (also called Girls’ festival day) in March.
Such traditions are slowly fading, but still an important part of Japanese culture.
Today’s words and phrases
・Isolation policy 鎖国政策
・Surrounded by 〜に囲まれた/包まれた
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