In Japan, sweets are a special subject. You know the cakes we eat in Italy, like Sacher, cakes with cream and strawberries, etc.? Well, in Italy they suck when compared to the “western” cakes and sweets they make in Japan.
It should also be noted, however, that traditional Japanese sweets are quite strange for the tastes to which we Italians are accustomed. They are almost always not very sweet and with strange textures.
On this page I’ll talk about traditional Japanese sweets, while in another article I’ll talk about Western sweets in Japan.
The term Wagashi refers to the traditional Japanese confectionery usually served during the tea ceremony and which is composed mainly of vegetable ingredients; very interesting is the nomenclature used, which for each type of cake consists of a combination of terms derived from nature and terms of ancient literature.
Japanese sweets in history
The Japanese confectionery tradition has its origins in ancient times, as evidenced by the discovery of some charred remains of what would seem to all intents and purposes of biscuits: the sweets were undoubtedly part of the daily diet of the ancient Japanese, so much so that centuries of tradition have given their fruits in a varied and delicious production.
Depending on the period, the company produced and consumed different types of sweets: the Tang pastry shop is well known, made with wheat flour and rice flour, often fried in oil, which was frequently served on the tables of the Imperial Court and was even offered as a gift to the gods; instead of sugar, which in Japan was very rare and was mostly used as a medicine, it was customary to use the syrup obtained from the boiling of grape juice, an excellent sweetener. There are also frequent references to sweets found in various literary works, such as The Story of Genji, The Tales of the Pillow and the Diary of Izumi Shikibu.
The first introduction of tea in Japan dates back to the year 1191, when the famous Zen priest Eisai brought the seeds of tea to the city of Kyoto, despite the fact that the drink had already appeared previously, consumed mostly in temples and Buddhist circles. With the diffusion of tea, the habit of consuming accompanying food, mostly sweet, also began to take root deeply. New European confectionery products were then introduced in Japan during the sixteenth century, in parallel with the opening to trade and frequent exchanges between East and West.
During the Edo period, the production of sugar cane underwent a surge and began to be used white sugar, obtained from the process of processing raw cane sugar, the latter much superior in terms of quality.
Here is an overview of the most popular types of wagashi of Japanese cuisine.
Fruit jelly cubes. Gelatine is obtained by dissolving in water the so-called agar, a polysaccharide made from red algae. The anmitsu are served in a bowl with sweet dough of adzuki beans, boiled peas and slices of peach, pineapple and cherry; over the jelly is usually poured dark syrup.
Generic term for the cakes of pressed rice, composed of glutinous rice stuffed with azuki bean paste. Daifuku are available in many varieties (the most common is white, pale green or pale pink), some of which contain whole pieces of fruit or fruit blends. Almost all daifuku are covered with a thin layer of corn or potato starch to prevent them from sticking to each other; some are covered with icing sugar or cocoa powder.
Small rice ball, stuck on a stick. It is often served with green tea. The dango are eaten all year round and the many variations take their name from the dressing that accompanies them, for example: the chadango is flavoured with green tea, the denpun dango is made with potato flour, the gom dango is made with sesame seeds and the kibi dango is made with millet flour.
A batter-based cake fried in a special pan (similar to a wafer iron, but without a honeycomb pattern) and filled with azuki bean paste; the bean paste filling is often replaced by filling with other ingredients, such as vanilla, fruit and jams.
Rice cakes and kuzuko (a starch made from a particular plant). The kuzumochi are served cold and seasoned with a sweet syrup.
Steamed cake, surrounded by a mixture of flour and available in different forms, such as peaches, rabbits and mushrooms. There are many varieties of manju, but most of them have an exterior made of flour, rice powder and buckwheat and a filling of azuki bean paste and sugar. This is a Chinese cake originally called mantou, which was exported to Japan and became known as manju.
Pounded and shaped glutinous rice pie in the desired shape (usually sphere or cube). In Japan it is traditionally made during a ceremony called mochitsuki, during which the rice is crushed with wooden sticks and two people alternate in the work, one pounding and the other turning and wetting the mochi. Very similar versions also exist in Hawaii, South Korea, Taiwan, China, Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia.
Bean paste cake wrapped in a fried cover and shaped like a fish. The most common filling is bean paste, but you can also fill it with cream, chocolate or cheese. The dough is poured into a fish shaped mould and cooked.
One of the oldest wagashi, it consists of a thick jelly made from red bean paste, starch and sugar. It is usually made into small shapes similar to blocks and cut into slices. There are two main types: black yokan and mizu yokan. In particular, the word “mizu” means “water” and indicates that the cake contains precisely a lot of water, for this reason it is consumed more frequently in summer. Yokan can also contain chopped chestnuts, persimmons, figs and sweet potatoes. Sugar can also be replaced with honey, raw cane sugar or molasses. Yokan was introduced to Japan by Zen Buddhists during the 12th century, evolving into one of Japan’s most popular sweets. Yokan sweets have a fairly long shelf life and can safely be successfully stored out of the refrigerator.
Akumaki: typical sweet of the Prefecture of Kagoshima, is composed of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo.
Amanatto: azuki beans or other type of beans, boiled with sugar and dried.
Botamochi : rice cake in the shape of a ball, wrapped in a paste of beans azuki.
Hanabiramochi : rice cake wrapped in bean paste and candied burdock.
Ikinari dango : steamed bread with pieces of sweet potato and bean paste.
Kusa mochi : vegetable cake made from rice, mugwort and beans.
Kuri Kinton: sweetened mixture of boiled and crushed chestnuts.
Monaka: bean paste between two delicate and crispy rice crackers.
Oshiruko: Hot bean paste dessert in liquid form.
Rakugan: small cake made from sweet, solid rice flour.
Sakuramochi: rice cake with bean paste, wrapped in a cherry leaf.
Uiro: steamed cake made from rice flour and sugar, similar to mochi.
Warabimochi: rice cake with warabi grass.
Yatsuhashi: thin sheets of rice flavoured with cinnamon and occasionally folded in a triangle around a ball of bean paste.