Wagashi: The Art Of Seasonal Expression and Hospitality
Nerikiri-style wagashi handmade by Ms. Yagi.
At left is wagashi in the shape of a cherry blossom and, at right, a hydrangea.
Growing up in Japan, one of my favorite things to do on my way back from school was to go into the neighborhood wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) store and admire all the beautiful treats that lined the counters with so many colors and shapes. When we had them at home, I often sat staring at my sweet before savoring it, wondering how on earth these edible gems were made. Who would have thought, years later in New York, I’d actually get a chance to meet a wagashi expert, Ms. Tomoko Yagi, who would humor my curiosity.
Ms. Yagi is a food consultant/instructor specializing in sweets whose creations are available at Soba-ya (www.sobaya-nyc.com) and Sakagura (www.sakagura.com). To explain the essence of wagashi, she brought up chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony. According to Ms. Yagi: “Wagashi are central to the Japanese tea ceremony, and the tea ceremony encapsulates what Japanese culture is all about. For example, expressing seasonality is an important feature of wagashi. Also, wagashi are supposed to please all five senses.” This explains why I was so charmed by the beautiful wagashi in my childhood and why my memories of wagashi are related to certain moments of the year.
Anmitsu is the perfect sweet treat for summertime
If you enjoy wagashi at a tea ceremony, you will have a wonderful experience, but when you are serving wagashi as part of a tea ceremony, it gets very tricky: You have to express seasonality in your wagashi, but you should do that in a very subtle way, meaning your sense of seasonality should not be obvious. Suppose you are the host of a tea ceremony and assigned the theme of Christmas. Red and green holly-shaped sweets would not be welcomed because they express the theme too directly. The wagashi you serve should be something hinting at the theme, arousing guests’ five senses, and leaving room for them to imagine the seasonality. “The wagashi maker’s job is not only to make beautiful and tasty sweets but also to make the guests think about what the treat is expressing,” Ms. Yagi explained. This is unique to wagashi, especially when we compare it to Western sweets.
Wagashi are very healthful, as they use ingredients like beans, rice, potatoes, and seaweed. Unlike most Western sweets, wagashi rarely use animal-based ingredients, so they are usually vegan friendly. There are several common types of wagashi, such as nerikiri (moist sweets made of white beans, rice flour, and sugar), higashi (dry sweets made of sugar and flour), yokan (jellied desserts made with agar-agar), and gyuhi (moist or somewhat-moist sweets made of rice flour and sugar). Although it looks simple, the act of making wagashi is not an easy task, according to Ms. Yagi. “Just a slight difference in the moisture balance can change the entire texture of the anko (sweet bean paste) or gyuhi. It’s also really labor intensive.” Since I am neither meticulous nor strong, I thought it would be it hopeless to make wagashi by myself. But she introduced me to a type of wagashi that even I can replicate: anmitsu.
Soba Manju served at Soba-ya has a hint of a soba (buckwheat) flavor
that goes very well with chunky red bean paste inside.
Anmitsu is a summery dessert that features jelly-like kanten and is served with fruit, red bean paste, syrup, and sometimes shiratama (rice-flour dumplings) and ice cream. First, make the kanten by bringing water, agar-agar powder,* and a little sugar to a boil. When the powder dissolves, pour the mixture into a container to cool. Once it has cooled and solidified, you can cut it into bite-sized pieces. To make the syrup, mix water with light brown sugar and a little white sugar and bring it to a boil. Once the consistency becomes syrupy, let it cool. Pour the syrup over the kanten and garnish with some fruit. If you like, you can add store-bought red bean paste or ice cream. Anmitsu is not the type of wagashi served in a tea ceremony, but it is still reminiscent of summer and helps you cool down.
*Agar-agar is made from a type of seaweed and available in Japanese grocery stores.
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