Japanese sweets--Wagashi--are characterized by their gentle taste and enjoyed for their delicate appearance, which can take the form of seasonal flowers and other pleasing shapes. In this article, we look at the types of wagashi and the typical ingredients they are made from.
Wagashi Ingredients: Beans
Beans are the most ubiquitous ingredient in wagashi. Red beans, in particular, are the raw material for red bean paste, and are essential for wagashi. Red bean paste is made by boiling soaked azuki beans in water, mashing them, and mixing them with sugar, giving it their dessert-worthy sweetness. Red beans are also known as "chiazuki" and are cultivated in many parts of Japan. Hokkaido is a particularly large producer of azuki, producing 90% of the bean in Japan. Red beans also make an appearance in anmitsu parfaits, which are decorated with fruit and red bean paste. Another dessert that would be incomplete without azuki is daifuku-mochi, a rice cake that is filled with the sweet paste.
There is also a white bean paste called ""shiro-an"" made from green beans. The white bean paste also plays an important role in wagashi sweets, often used in a similar capacity as the red bean paste. However, compared to the red paste, the white paste has strong overtones of the green beans that it is made from. If you are going to try bean paste for the first time, try the red-bean variety first.
Wagashi Ingredients: Grains
Of all the grains, rice and wheat are the most commonly used for making Japanese sweets. Other grains, like buckwheat and millet are also used. There are two types of rice: common uruchi rice and sticky glutinous rice. In wagashi, these two types of rice are used for different purposes (as flour or dough). And both are found in a variety of wagashi, like mochi, yokan and kintsuba. Yokan is a red bean paste based sweet made from azuki beans that is hardened with a sticky seaweed jelly called agar. In some cases, wheat is used instead of agar. Kintsuba is made by coating bean jam with flour and sugar. The coating creates a contrast in texture.
We see how rice and wheat grains play an indispensable role in Japanese sweets.
Wagashi Ingredients: Fruit
Fruit plays an important contrasting role, in terms of both color and as a source of citrus that balances the rich sweetness from the red bean paste.
In particular, chestnuts, strawberries and persimmons are common fruit ingredients. For example, chestnuts can be found in yokan (sweet bean jelly), and sometimes in dorayaki, a Japanese confectionery made of pancakes and bean paste. Strawberries are also wrapped in mochi (rice cake) made from glutinous rice filled with anko (red bean paste). This type of wagashi is called "strawberry daifuku" and is very popular when strawberries are in season. Daifuku with mandarin oranges and daifuku with grapes are also popular, creating the perfect combination of freshness from the fruit and the sweetness of the bean paste. Persimmons are often dried in the sun and eaten without further processing as dried persimmons. Dried persimmons that are particularly sweet are called "anpo-kaki". The sweetness of the dried persimmon is said to be equal to that of anko or as sweet as dates that are a specialty of Middle-Eastern regions.
Chestnuts and persimmons have been cultivated in Japan since the Jomon period (about 16,000 years ago), and have been widely loved as an accompaniment to tea. Dried persimmons, in particular, were widely depended on by the common people as a preserved food due to their high shelf life. Dried persimmons were a valuable source of sweetness and nutrition in times of famine and scaricity.
Wagashi Ingredients: Agar
Mentioned earlier, agar is a widely used ingredient in Japanese sweets. The raw material is a seaweed called amakusa. Agar is made by boiling the seaweed to extract its juices. The water is then evaporated, leaving the substance that is agar. Agar has the property of hardening when cooled, which is why it is used when a jelly-like texture is desired from the sweet. Another well-known additive that adds a jelly-like texture is gelatin. However, solidified agar has the property of not dissolving unless the temperature reaches 85℃ or higher. This feature lends to agar's excellent shelf life and processability. Another feature, since it does not dissolve unless the temperature is high, agar does not have the melt-in-your-mouth feel of chocolate. The texture of agar remains after it is put in the mouth.
Other Typical ingredients for Wagashi
Many other ingredients play an important role in Japanese sweets. A few notable mentions are sesame, potato and ginger. Sesame seeds and potatoes in particular are frequently used in wagashi. Sesame is used to make dumplings, a type of Japanese confectionery made by rolling up rice cakes. Among the different types of potatoes, sweet potatoes have a strong sweetness that goes well with wagashi. It is used in a wide variety of Japanese and Western style confectionaries such as sweet potato yokan. Since potatoes can be grown anywhere, they have been cultivated in many parts of Japan since ancient times. Also, potatoes were used as a substitute for rice and wheat during wartimes and other periods of scarcity. Both sesame and sweet potatoes are ingredients that are deeply connected to the history of Japanese food culture. The reason why sweet potatoes are often used in Japanese sweets may be because Japanese people are familiar and love sweet potatoes in their unprocessed form.
Types of Wagashi
There are three main types of wagashi: raw confectionery, semi-raw confectionery and dried confectionery. Yet, this is simply a scientific classification based on moisture content. When considering a more detailed classification of wagashi, a different approach becomes necessary. For example, even if we are looking at yokan, the classification will change depending on the ingredients used and the manufacturing method. If agar is used in the yokan to make it softer, it is classified as a "raw confectionery". However, if it is kneaded more strongly or mixed with wheat or other ingredients to make it firmer, it becomes a "semi-raw confectionery". The types of wagashi vary greatly depending on the manufacturing method and ingredients; we take a closer look in the sections that follow.
Raw Confectionery (Namagashi)
Raw confectionery has the highest water content among all wagashi. Specifically, it refers to wagashi with a moisture content of 30% or more.
Among the raw confections, there are mochimono (rice cake), mushimono (steamed), yakimono (baked), nagashimono (poured), nerimono (brined), and agemono (fried). The differences in these classifications are due to differences in raw materials and manufacturing methods. Mochi (rice cake) and Daifuku (a type of rice cake) are classified as "mochimono". Mochi and Daifuku are Japanese sweets made from glutinous rice and characterized by their sticky texture. Those made in a steamer like a rice cooker are called "mushimono".
Dorayaki, sakura mochi and sponge cakes are "yakimono" because they are baked to finish. Yokan is a Japanese confectionery made by pouring a batter containing agar into a mold and is considered a "nagashimono" (poured) because of this step. "Neririmono" is a Japanese confectionery made by mixing rice cake with sugar and other ingredients. "Agegashi" is a type of Japanese confectionery that is fried in oil to finish. This is the case with red bean paste doughnuts, which holeless doughnuts filled with red bean paste. There are also two categories of fresh confectionaries: "asa-namagashi" and "jyou-namagashi". Asa-managashi is a type of fresh confectionery that is eaten on the day it is made. On the other hand, jyou-namagashi is a raw confectionery that keeps for several days.
As we see, even in the category of raw confectionery, there are various types depending on the production method and raw materials.
Semi-raw Confectionery (Han-namagashi)
Semi-raw confectioneries are wagashi with the second to highest water content after raw confectioneries. Specifically, it refers to wagashi with a moisture content of 10% or more, but less than 30%.
As mentioned above, the same wagashi can be either raw or semi-raw depending on the manufacturing method and ingredients. Among the semi-raw confectioneries, there are anmono, okamono, yakimono, nagashimono and nerimono. The latter three also appear as raw confectioneries. However, depending on the manufacturing method and ingredients, some wagashi can be classified as either semi-raw or raw. Anmono is a sweet red bean paste made by boiling down sugar with grainless red beans called "koshi-an" and adding water candy. It is finished with sugar honey. "Okamono" is a Japanese confectionery made from specific ingredients without heat. A typical example is the "monaka", which is a Japanese confectionery made by sandwiching red bean paste in a thin glutinous rice dough. The freshness of the bean paste is important in this simple Japanese sweet.
Semi-raw wagashi has some unique characteristics that differentiate it from the raw wagashi, but in many features, they are very similar.
Dried Confectionery (Higashi)
Dried confectioneries are the wagashi with the lowest water content. Specifically refering to wagashi with less than 10% water content.
There are several types of dried confectioneries: uchimono, oshimono, kakemono, yakimono and amemono. The main ingredient in dried confectioneries is glutinous rice. "Uchimono" is made by adding sugar to dried rice powder and hardening it in a wooden frame and "oshimono" is a Japanese confectionery made by adding glutinous rice powder to the Uchimono confectionery to make it softer. "Kakemono" are confections made by sprinkling sugar on candy or beans. Typical examples are "hina-arare" and "okoshi". Hina-arare is a Japanese confectionery eaten during the Hina Matsuri, an event to pray for the health of girls. They are colorful, sweet and delicious, and are popular among children. Baked goods are the same as raw or semi-raw confections. "Amemono" are melt-in-your-mouth Japanese sweets made with sugar and syrup. Examples of amemono are "bo-ro" and "kompeito". There is another type of dried confectionery called "rakugan". There is almost no difference between this and the "uchimono" method. The name changes due to the difference in the way the dough is pressed together.
Indulge in the Variety of Wagashi!
Wagashi represents a wide spectrum of different ingredients, cooking methods and moisture content. When looking for wagashi in Japan, consider the ingredients that are used with the knowledge that the texture and appearance can vary greatly depending on how it is made. In fact, most Japanese probably have not tried all types of the wagashi; another reminder of how many types exist. Even on a store by store basis, each has its own special wagashi recipe. It may be impossible to know everything about wagashi, but all the more reason to try as many different types as you can!