Japanese Sweets "Wagashi" in Autumn
A common refrain that the Japanese refer to is "appetite of autumn", pointing to the many delicious foods during this season. So much is this the case that concerns over growing waistlines are also a topic that comes up often. The following is a must-read for those who are interested in Japanese sweets that add color to this beautiful time of year.
Characteristic of Wagashi in Autumn
A feature of autumn wagashi is the attention placed on the natural flavors of the ingredients. Typical examples are wagashi using chestnuts, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and persimmons that are in season in autumn. Spring wagashi are often made with cherry blossoms or mugwort to emphasize fragrance. Summer wagashi use agar and other ingredients to create a refreshing texture that is a pleasure to eat in the hot summer heat. In addition, visual characteristics reminiscent of summer are incorporated in its shape. Autumn wagashi is characterized by the flavor of seasonal ingredients, as well as representing the wagashi in the appearance of these ingredients. Many of the ingredients have a naturally strong sweet taste-- all the better for wagashi desserts. As mentioned, the "appetite of autumn" lives up to its reputation, with many delicious foods coming into season, and wagashi are no different. It would not be an exaggeration to say that if you know autumn wagashi, you understand the food preferences of the Japanese. Let's take a look at a few symbolic autumn wagashi.
Kuri-kinton is a Japanese confectionery that fully appreciates the taste of chestnuts in the form of a sweet and smooth paste. Gifu Prefecture produces many high quality chestnuts. In the past, many chestnuts from Gifu were used for the purpose of producing this popular dessert. Today, with developments in freezing technology, chestnuts are produced all over the country. Kuri-kinton is known as a Japanese autumn confectionery, but it is actually also used in the New Year's Osechi dish. One difference of Osechi kuri-kinton is that rather than being a chestnut paste, big chunks of chestnuts are generously kept intact. Because of its appearance, chestnuts have been regarded as a food that brings good fortune, symbolizing luck in money and victory. Kuri-kinton, with its strong sweetness, is a familiar treat to the Japanese and is loved by all throughout the year.
Imo-yokan is a dessert made by kneading sweet potatoes, sugar and a small amount of salt. Some recipes call for agar and other ingredients as well. Although it is called a "yokan", the ingredients used are completely different from those in customary yokan. The imo-yokan is made from whole sweet potatoes, kneaded with sugar and then shaped using a mold. Because the sugar content of imo-yokan is much lower than that of ordinary yokan, it spoils quickly--while the shelf life of a typical yokan is more than a month, the shelf life of imo-yokan is only a couple of days. It is said that wagashi like the imo-yokan have existed since the Edo period. In the Meiji era (1868-1912), imo-yokan was commercialized because people thought it would be a waste to throw away the surplus of sweet potatoes.
Warabi-mochi is a soft rice cake made from bracken flour, and is a Japanese confectionery eaten with kinako (soybean flour), kuromitsu (black honey), and green tea powder. Warabi-mochi has a long history, with records showing that it was the favorite food of Emperor Go-Daigo in the 17th century. There is also a legend that it was used as emergency food for farmers in times of famine. Nara Prefecture, which is close to Kyoto, is a famous producer of bracken flour, a key ingredient in warabi-mochi. Most of the warabi-mochi found in supermarkets in Japan today are translucent. This is because the bracken flour used in commercial warabi-mochi is mixed with potato starch. However, warabi-mochi made with 100% bracken flour will be completely black in color. This type of bracken rice cake is called "honwarabi mochi" to distinguish it from commercially available mochi. It is said that hon-warabi mochi deteriorates even more quickly than ordinary warabi-mochi. It is best to eat it within 30 minutes of production! As we can see, the color, taste, and shelf life of warabi mochi vary depending on the amount of bracken powder it contains.
The Mont Blanc dessert has its origins in French home cooking. It is a sweet treat made of a cupcake-shaped sponge cake and whipped cream. It is said that production in Japan started in 1933. In Japan, the cream is topped with chestnuts, sweet potatoes and green tea cream. Mont Blanc is a western style confectionery, but the ingredients used in the Mont Blanc produced in Japan have a few unique features, including the use of sweet potatoes, green tea and other seasonal autumn ingredients. Incidentally, there is also a Mont-Blanc dessert that uses the Japanese confectionery "yokan" as its base. For many Japanese, Mont-Blanc is a dessert that has been enjoyed since childhood, and does not fall neatly into the category of a Western confectionary--a sign of how closely it has become a part of the lives of the Japanese. Further fusions between Japanese and Western sweets is a lovely thought.
Ohagi is a Japanese sweet eaten during the autumnal equinox, a Buddhist event in Japan. In spring, it is called "botamochi" and is eaten during the spring equinox. It is a dumpling-like confection made of glutinous rice wrapped in red bean paste. However, there is no clear difference between Ohagi and Botamochi. The name "Ohagi" is taken from the seven autumnal flowers, hagi (bush clover), and the name "Botamochi" is taken from the word for peony. The reason why ohagi is eaten during the autumnal equinox is because it is said that the color red has the effect of repelling evil. Also, glutinous rice is an ingredient that symbolizes a good harvest. By combining these ingredients, people avoid disasters and pray for a good crop. In fact, in rural areas, there is still a custom of offering botamochi and ohagi at the beginning of farming and harvest time (spring and fall). Also, the main ingredients used in ohagi are only red beans and glutinous rice, making it possible to produce throughout the year.
September 21st in Japan is "Moon Viewing Night". On this day, many people appreciate the moon and wrap themselves in the greatness of nature. This custom is widely observed in China, Japan, and other East Asian countries. In Japan, it is customary to eat dumplings or manjuu while bathing in the soft light of the moon. Usagi-manjuu is a steamed yeast bun that resembles the shape and color of a rabbit. The eyes of the reabbit are usually red and the brown color--naturally produced from the branding--is used for the ears. The skin is made of yam, which gives it a moist texture. Tsukimi-dango is another wagashi that is enjoyed during moon viewing. This confection is a dumpling made from white egg powder and water. The dumplings themselves have no flavor, but toppings like red bean paste or soybean flour are common. These dumplings originally have their roots in a Chinese snack called "mooncakes". The custom of holding a tea party while viewing the moon is said to have been first held in Japan in 897, making it an event with a very long history.
Kuri-Yokan is a Japanese confectionery that contains whole chestnuts in a yokan. It is made the same way as yokan, but contains chestnuts boiled in sugar and syrup. Another variation is yokan with whole chestnut filling, which can be eaten like a fresh confectionery. This type of yokan is similar to sweet potato yokan (imo-yokan), but has a lower sugar content and contains no additives. There is another type of yokan called "Kurimushi-Yokan (chestnut steamed yokan) but this is made with kudzu and flour paste. Since it is a raw confectionery, it has a shorter shelf life than chestnut yokan. The history of kuri-yokan dates back to 1919. It is said to have been conceived and produced with the goal of "creating something unique". The place of origin of this wagashi is Narita-san in Chiba. The kuri-yokan, made from whole chestnuts, is a popular Japanese confectionery that at times requires advance reservation to buy. The sweetness and texture of the chestnut makes it a perfect mid-afternoon treat.
Gingko-mochi is a wagashi associated with the gingko tree, which is believed to have mystical powers. It was first made in 1872, wishing for good health and longevity. It is produced by actually wrapping gingko nuts, one at a time, into rice cakes. This is a dish that fills the mouth with a moderate bitterness. Gingko nuts have a very short shelf life (about a week), so the production of gingko mochi is also limited to autumn. The process differs from store to store, but in most cases, the layer of bean paste is made thicker to cover the bitterness and peculiarity of the gingko. On the other hand, there are also ginkgo mochi that use two or three ginkgo nuts in each piece, highlighting the full taste of gingko.
A taste of Japanese Autumn through Wagashi
In this article, we explored a broad variety of autumn wagashi. Many use seasonal ingredients, making the most of their natural flavors. Typical examples are ginkgo mochi and sweet potato (imo) yokan. Also, as with other seasonal wagashi, the season is represented through aroma and shape. Another characteristic of autumn wagashi is their use in Buddhist rituals. Recently, it is not uncommon for wagashi and western confectionaries to collaborate, and the influence of western confectionaries is notable in several types of wagashi, as in the example of Mont Blanc. It is not uncommon to find cream--a Western ingredient--and chestnuts in dorayaki, a typical Japanese confectionery. Such new confections have become very popular. Japanese wagashi are evolving as they collaborate with sweets from around the world. If you have a chance, try a few autumn wagashi and take part in the "appetite of autumn"