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Japanese Sweets "Wagashi" in Spring

By Umami Recipe
Japanese Sweets "Wagashi" in Spring

Wagashi are sweets that add color and a bit of sugar to the four seasons in Japan. Spring has a variety of wagashi that it calls its own. Join us in a tour of the types and characteristics of wagashi during this season of renewal and growth.

Spring Wagashi Features

There are several wagashi that are particular to spring and others that are available year round but are at their best during this time of year. Spring wagashi are characterized by their color and fragrance. The fresh scent of plants and trees hint at this season of new beginnings. Many wagashi varieties use the same ingredients, but depending on the geographic location these ingredients originated, tastes and textures may be very different. For example, mugwort from Nagano prefecture, which is famous for its production of this plant, has a strong aroma and is often used in grass rice cakes. Wagashi shops often use local ingredients to express their version of spring wagashi.

Spring wagashi are characterized by their color and fragrance. The fresh scent of plants and trees hint at this season of new beginnings. Many wagashi varieties use the same ingredients, but depending on the geographic location these ingredients originated, tastes and textures may be very different. For example, mugwort from Nagano prefecture, which is famous for its production of this plant, has a strong aroma and is often used in grass rice cakes. Wagashi shops often use local ingredients to express their version of spring wagashi.

Recently, there has been an increase in the use of seasonal fruits in wagashi. These wagashi are especially popular among the younger generation. Examples of such confections include yomogi strawberry daifuku, which is a mugwort rice cake with strawberries and yomogi anpan, in which mugwort is kneaded into the dough of a sweet bean paste filled pastry. Japanese confectionery is evolving along with the changes in tastes and preferences.

Cherry Leaf Rice Cake (Sakura-Mochi)

Sakura mochi is a Japanese confectionery made of rice cakes colored with cherry blossoms and wrapped in salted cherry leaves. In some regions, shops will use white rice cakes as the base of this dessert. Along with kusa-mochi and dango, the sakura mochi is a representative Japanese wagashi and is very popular. The salted cherry leaves give off a strong aroma of cherry blossoms and the saltiness of the cherry leaves and the sweetness of the rice cake combine for a complex taste that is hard to resist.

There are two types of sakura mochi: Kanto style and Kansai style. Kanto refers to a region in Japan that includes Tokyo, Saitama and Kanagawa prefectures. While the Kansai region represents Kyoto, Osaka and Hyogo prefectures. The Kanto style sakura mochi is called the Chomyoji style and is easily identifiable from the red bean paste covering the outside of the rice cake. The Kansai style sakura mochi, called Domyoji style, is characterized by the rice cake wrapped around the red bean paste.

Incidentally, it is recommended not to eat the cherry leaves that are attached to the sakura mochi. According to the National Wagashi Association, "Eating cherry blossom leaves is not recommended as it may cause discomfort."

Mugwort Rice Cake (Kusa-Mochi)

Kusa mochi is a type of rice cake made from mugwort plant, which sprouts in early spring. The bright green color and the unique fragrance of mugwort are characteristic of this wagashi. Grass cakes are sometimes skewered and eaten as dumplings with sweetened red bean paste. This food culture seems to have come from China, where fragrant plants such as herbs were used to ward off evil spirits. This tradition continues in Japan, where kusa mochi is recognized as a confectionery to keep evil spirits away. Even today, fragrant herbs are believed to have an effect of warding off evil spirits, and are used in many Japanese sweets. For example, hishimochi (diamond-shaped rice cakes) served during the Hina Matsuri (Girls' Festival) is a famous example. Hishi mochi is made of white, pink and green rice cakes stacked in a rhombus shape. The green rice cake in the hishi mochi is a grass rice cake. Besides warding away evil spirits, mugwort has a more practical effect too. The aroma of this plant has a calming effect, and is recommended when you are feeling stress.

Sweet Bean Jelly with Sakura (Sakura-Yokan)

Sakura yokan is a Japanese confectionery that adds cherry blossom petals and other scented ingredients to yokan--an agar jelly made out of red bean paste. Sakura yokan is loved for its softness and smooth texture. When cherry blossoms and leaves are kneaded into the red bean paste, the result is a soft sakura aroma that gives the dessert a spring-like flavor. 

You can actually make sakura yokan yourself with a mold and a few basic ingredients. It also goes well with matcha green tea or black tea, so why not try it during cherry blossom viewing or as an afternoon snack?

Uguisu-Mochi

Uguisu mochi is a Japanese confectionery that reminds the Japanese of the bush warbler. The Japanese bush warbler is a bird found in the mountain forests of Japan. Its light green body and a distinctive call makes it easy to identify. If you are a mountain climber or a camper, you will probably hear the call of this bird often. 

The red bean paste is coated with "gyuhi," a mixture of white egg powder, sugar and syrup. Next, the face and body of the bird is molded with special tools. The warbler's characteristic light green color is achieved by sprinkling soybean flour made from green soybeans. 

This dessert has a long history, and was first presented as a rare confectionary at a tea ceremony for the shogun in 1580, and has since become a highly prestigious wagashi. Because of its cute appearance and elegant sweetness, it is used as a gift when important guests come to visit.

Rice Ball with Sweert Red Bean Paste (Ohagi)

Ohagi is a Japanese confectionery made from a mixture of both glutinous and non-glutinous rice and then covered with red bean paste, soybean flour and sesame seeds. It is a traditional taste of home in rural areas where it was served to guests and at gatherings after rice planting. The red beans used to make the red bean paste are believed to ward away bad luck. For this reason, it has been used as an offering when visiting graves.

However, since it is a Japanese confectionery that is very familiar and has been around for a while, it has often been pointed out that the taste and appearance of ohagi has fallen into a rut. Recently, some stores are using coconut, cinnamon, or fruit jelly in place of red bean paste so that new generations are more likely to try and appreciate this classic wagashi. As with people, sometimes sweets too need to change with the times.

Oak Leaf Rice Cake (Kashiwa-Mochi)

Kashiwa mochi is a red bean paste filled rice cake wrapped in oak leaves. Red bean paste is a common ingredient in many types of wagashi, and there are three types of red-bean paste, or "an", depending on the region.

The first type is koshi-an, which is made from finely mashed azuki beans. Koshi-an has a sweet taste and smooth texture, and is the most commonly used type of red bean paste in Kashiwa mochi. The second type is tsubu-an, which is made from roughly mashed azuki beans. It is often used in Ohagi and Daifuku.The third is miso-an,  which is often made with white miso, especially in Kyoto. 

Kashiwa leaves contain phytoncide, a substance that calms the nerves. Also, as with cherry blossom rice cakes, it is best not to eat the leaves. Albeit the leaves, kashiwa mochi contains a wish for the health of children. It's for this reason that it is often eaten on holidays like Children's Day. Kashiwa mochi is widely available throughout Japan, sold not only in specialty confectionery stores but also in supermarkets across the country.

Iga-Manjuu

Iga-manju is a local dish loved in Aichi Prefecture. The iga dumplings are filled with red bean paste and wrapped in mochi (rice cake) with a colorful colored glutinous rice decorating the top. Each color of Iga-manju has a distinct meaning. Pink represents the elimination of evil. Yellow represents a good harvest. And green means life force. There is another theory that pink represents peach blossoms, yellow represents rape blossoms, and green represents new shoots. In addition to Aichi Prefecture, Kyoto and Kyushu also have a custom of eating iga-manju. However, it is only in Aichi Prefecture that iga-manju is eaten for the Hina Festival.

There are also many theories about the origin of the name "Iga-manju". Some say it is a tribute to Tokugawa Ieyasu, a warlord of the Sengoku period, for his achievement of "crossing over the river Iga". Another theory is that the name derives from the aroma of steamed glutinous rice, called "inoka".

As we see, iga-manju continues the theme of warding off bad luck and welcoming good health, with a special wish for the health and growth of children.

Hanami-Dango

Hanami dango is a tri-colored dumpling eaten during the cherry blossom viewing season (March to early April).

Hanami dango originated when warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi served colorful dumplings to his vassals at a cherry blossom viewing party. The culture of Hanami (flower viewing), which at that time was the culture of the upper class, gradually spread to the general public. This tradition continued into recent times, with hanami dango eaten as an accompaniment to cherry blossom viewing in many parts of Japan. Hanami dango comes in three colors: pink, white and green. This color combination is often seen in Japanese sweets, like in hishimochi and igamanju. There are many theories about the meaning of these colors. A common theory is that the colors represent foods associated with spring. Another is that they represent wishes to ward off evil spirits and promote good health.

Hanami dumplings are skewered in the order of pink, white and green and there are theories as to why this makes sense. The first is that pink represents the sun, the white represents the snow, and the green represents the plants and trees. The second theory is that the pink represents the buds, the white represents the petals in full bloom, and the green represents the tree after the petals have fallen. Regardless of the theory, it is clear that hanami dango are a Japanese confectionery made in imitation of nature.

Spring Sweets and Flowers

There are many kinds of spring wagashi with many more whose origins are obscure and less defined, making wagashi a topic ripe for further research! Many of the wagashi of spring are made by adding plants and trees to existing sweets to add fragrance and color, celebrating and reproducing the four seasons in their appearance, taste and aroma on the table. This practice is evident in the grass rice cakes, cherry blossom rice cakes and Kashiwa rice cakes as representative examples. By kneading plants into the dough or wrapping leaves around them to give them a scent, we can enjoy spring with our sense of sight, smell and taste. In order to enjoy Japan in spring, it is ideal to eat spring confectionaries as an accompaniment to cherry blossom viewing. By learning about the food of the Japanese people through wagashi, you will gain a deeper understanding of what the Japanese appreciate and look for in foods and sweets.

Umami Recipe
Umami Recipe Team

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