About Wagashi

4月 21st, 2009 Posted in | No Comments »

 

Wagshi : Traditional Japanese Sweets

 

Wagashi are traditional Japanese confectioneries that are often served with tea. They are typically made from natural based, mainly plant ingredients such as azuki beans and grains. Generally Wagashi are differentiated from confectioneries that were introduced from the West in the 19th century(Meiji Restoration) because those confectioneries use ingredients alien to the traditional Japanese cuisine.

 

Wagashi are classified into 3 categories according to the production method and moisture content. Moisture content is very important because it determines the best-before date.

     Namagashi, or fresh confectionery, has a moisture level of 30 % or more.

     Han namagashi, or half-dry confectionery, has a moisture level of 10-30 %.

     Higashi, or dry confectionery, has a moisture level of 10 % or less.

 

There are many kinds of wagashi that can be classified in terms of their production method.

     Mushi mono(Steamed Confectioneries)

     Yaki mono(Baked)

     Nagashi mono(Jellied)

     Neri mono(Kneaded)

     Uchi mono(Molded)

     Oshi mono(Pressed)

 

One of the crucial aspects of Wagashi is that it is dubbed as the comprehensive art of the human five senses. This means that we need to sharpen our artistic senses so that we can appreciate Wagashi by the sense of sight, smell, hearing and touch other than taste.

 

Regarding the sense of vision, Wagashi is characterized by its design. The design of Wagashi must feature natural beauty that is distinctive to the season we are in. For example, in spring when cherry blossoms are in full bloom, wagashi confectioners produce sweets in the shape of cherry blossoms or using cherry petals or leaves. Recently, it is becoming more difficult for us to become aware of the changing season but wagashi stores can serve as a reminder of the upcoming season.

 

As for the sense of hearing, each wagashi has a name after a beautiful seasonal object or phenomenon or a word from a famous poem verse or ancient literature. When people hear such poetic name, they can use their imagination to depict natural scenery in the season or a scene from a famous classic story or essay.

 

About the sense of taste, wagashi shouldn’t taste too sweet or too plain. This is because we should make a fine balance between the sweetness of a confectionery and the bitterness of macya, or green powdered tea that is served together with wagashi. For the similar reason, wagashi’s fragrance is rather subtle in order not to disturb that of macya.

 

Wagashi’s texture should also be appreciated by touching it with the hand or placing it in the mouth.

 

Wagashi has been elevated into the level of art that represents the essence of the Japanese culture. This is because it has been developed together with the tea ceremony.

 

History of wagashi

In ancient Japan, people ate fruits and nuts as confectionery and sweets to supplement nutrition in addition to grain such as rice, wheat and millet. In an excavation of a Jomon Period archeological site, the carbonized remains of what appeared to be baked cookies made from chestnuts powder were discovered.

 

According to the Kojiki, or “A Record of Ancient Matters,” Emperor Suinin ordered Tajima-mori to bring a kind of orange from the Eternal Land. 10 years later Tajimi-mori returned with the orange, but Emperor Suinin was already dead. Tajima-mori mourned since he could not carry out his mission and took his own life. By tradition, Tajima-mori is worshipped as spirit like a patron saint among confectionery craftsmen.

 

Tang confectionery

 

Japan sent envoys to the Sui and Tang Dynasty from the Asuka period(7th century) to the beginning of the Heian period(9th century). They brought back 8 Tang confectioneries and 14 grain flour-based confectioneries and their recipes. The Tang confectioneries were made from wheat flour and rice flour that were kneaded and then fried in oil. These were made using more advanced confectionery techniques than that of Japan in those days. They were served at the Imperial Court and Shintoist and Buddhist deities. Also, dark brown sugar was brought back to Japan by Jianzhen from the Tang in the 8th century but sugar-refining technique was not introduced to Japan at this point. Therefore, sugar was very rare in Japan and was treasured like medicine. Instead people used the syrup made form the sap of Grape ivy as a sweetener.

 

During this period, many diaries and tales were written by aristocrats. The Tale of Genji, The pillow Book, and The Diary of Izumi Shikibu have some episodes about confectioneries.

 

In 1349, Rin Join came from Yuan to Japan with a Zen priest. He lived in Nara, and sold steamed dumplings. These type of dumplings were filled with meat in China, but since meat eating was taboo in Japan then, azuki bean paste sweetened with plant-derived syrup was used as filling. Azuki beans were used for they were believed to drive away evil spirits. Meanwhile, many priests went to China to study Zen Buddhism and Eisai, one of those priests, brought back tea seeds from China in 1191. He later established a sect of Zen Buddhism known as Rinzai school today. After that, the habit of drinking tea stared to be established in Zen monasteries. This is the origin of the tea ceremony today. Zen priests also brought back some of the new sweets including the origin of Yokan at that time.

 

Nanban confectionery

 

In 1543, Portuguese were shipwrecked on Tanegashima Island located south of Kagoshima Prefecture. Since then, the so-called Nanban trade began and Europeans such as Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish people introduced many things including guns and some new sweets. Those sweets were made from dairy-based ingredients like eggs, and milk and were called Nanban-Gashi, or sweets from Southern Barbarian.

 

Edo Period

 

During the Edo Period, the agricultural productivity improved significantly, including that of sugarcane in Okinawa and processed white sugar became widely available. A type of sugar called wasanbon was also perfected and is still used exclusively to make wagashi. The tea ceremony was developed greatly during this period. Serving good sweets became one of the most important aspects in the ceremony and wagashi confectioners competed with each other in order to meet their customer needs. This helped wagashi making techniques to develop significantly. Many kinds of wagashi were invented and became very popular. After the Meiji Restoration, Wagashi was perfected into the style as we know today.