Japanese Sweets: Sampling something different

Japanese sweets, or wagashi, are traditional Japanese confections that are often served with tea, especially the types of mochi, anko and fruits. Japanese sweets are typically made using plant-based ingredients such as bean paste. In Japan, the original word for Japanese sweets was kashi, which referred to fruits and nuts. With the increasing sugar trade between China and Japan, sugar became a common household ingredient by the end of the Muromachi Period. Influenced by the introduction of tea, China’s confectionary and dim sum, the creation of wagashi took off during the Edo Period of Japan. Let’s take a closer look at a select range of Japanese sweets and what makes wagashi so popular.

Characteristics of confectionary

Typically, Japanese sweets, more specifically wagashi, take a lot of work to make. Known for its delicateness and variety in appearance, these Japanese sweets are usually named after poetry, historical events and or natural scenery that reflects the delicate culture of Japan. Wagashi can be used as a great gift during festivals and can also be a daily treat for visiting guests in the household. Different places in Japan have different wagashi that are unique in flavour as their local speciality. Because of this, Japanese people tend to take these Japanese sweets home after personal or business trips. 

Most Japanese people believe that the artistic characteristics of wagashi represent both a sense of the season the wagashi was made and a humble piece of Japanese culture with some wagashi only being available to buy regionally or seasonally. Japanese sweets are made in a wide variety of shapes and consistencies with a diverse range of ingredients and preparation methods, so let’s explore some of Japan’s most popular sweet treat choices.

Popular choices

There are many different types of wagashi to choose from, the list is endless. Some of the most popular Japanese sweets, however, include; manju, yokan, ohagi, chimaki, dorayaki, daifuku, kushi-dango, taiyaki, kashiwa-mochi, zenzai and oshiruko (wagashi ‘soups’) and the dried form known as hi-gashi, such as senbei, kompeito and okoshi.

Momiji Manju

Momiji Manju are traditional Japanese sweets that originate from Hiroshima. The Japanese word momiji means ‘autumn leaf’ and as Hiroshima is famous for maple trees, manju are shaped like these iconic leaves. These treats are made using castella cake that is filled with a sweet red bean paste, one of the most popular fillings for wagashi.

Ichigo Daifuku

Ichigo Daifuku are very famous Japanese sweets and are originally from Osaka, a prefecture also famous for savoury snacks like takoyaki and okonomiyaki. Ichigo Daifuku are made of mochi, sweet red bean paste and a strawberry. This fruity Japanese snack is perfect for spring and summer and you can find it throughout all prefectures in Japan.

Namagashi 

Namagashi are traditional Japanese sweets that are most often associated with wagashi. They are made of rice flour and a sweet bean paste filling and are delicately shaped by hand to reflect the season. Namagashi are served at tea ceremonies to compliment the bitter taste of tea.

Oshiruko/Zenzai 

Oshiruko and Zenzai take a slightly different form to most Japanese sweets. Oshiruko and Zenzai are forms of sweet porridge made using azuki beans that have been boiled, crushed and served in a bowl with mochi. There are many different styles of Oshiruko and Zenzai where the beans are served with other Japanese sweets, such as rice flour dumplings. The difference in these desserts is that Zenzai is made from a condensed paste and is less watery than Oshiruko, with a consistency more like jam or marmalade.

Dango

Dango are chewy, small, steamed dumplings made from rice flour. These Japanese sweets are typically served skewered with around three or four dumplings to a stick. The dango are then topped with a sweet sauce or bean paste. The dumplings are also added into other desserts like anmitsu and oshiruko. The many different varieties of dango are usually named after the various seasonings that are served on or with the dumplings.

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