Japanese Sweets "Wagashi" in Summer
What would a Japanese summer dessert look like? As the weather gets hotter, many people may imagine something refreshing and cool. We'll be taking a look at summer wagashi to find out what kind of sweets Japanese people enjoy under the hot summer sun!
Characteristics of Wagashi in Summer
Japanese sweets in general are designed to remind us of the four seasons. In the case of summer wagashi, many evoke a sense of coolness through their appearance and texture--wisdom that descends from the ancestors to overcome the high humidity and temperature of summer in Japan. It is not only the appearance, but also the taste of the confections that are made with ingenuity in terms of ingredients and production methods. The most common of the ingredients are agar and syrup. This combination contributes to a cool and clear appearance when eaten. "Kingyoku" and "Kuzukiri," which will be introduced later, fall into this category. The "Furing" --a wind-chime that is hung from the window frames of Japanese homes in summer--are made of glass and create a delicate and cool ringing sound as the breeze passes through the house. Just like the furing, summer wagashi are made with the idea of relieving people from the summer heat. We now introduce a few select wagashi that are perfect for the hot Japanese summers.
Mizu-manjyu are a summer manju (steamed yeast bun) made of a cool, transparent plant based dough and filled with sweet red bean paste. There are various types of bean pastes that are used in mizu-manju, including koshi-an made of finely mashed red beans and matcha-an made of green tea. Incidentally, the birthplace of mizu-manju is said to be Ogaki City in Gifu Prefecture, roughly located between Tokyo and Osaka. mizu-manjyu, which is made using fresh groundwater from Ogaki City, is a soft water, and matches well with red bean paste. Other freshwater-reliant sweets also originate from Ogaki City and have been loved by locals and visitors alike. It used to be a summer tradition in Ogaki City to sell the mizu-manju made in the morning while cooling them in a water tank. Nowadays, the mizu-manjyu are sold not only in Ogaki City, but all over Japan. The cool and refreshing summer feeling of mizu-manjyu makes it one of the most beloved Japanese summer sweets.
Mizu-yokan is a Japanese confectionery made by pouring a batter made of bean paste and agar into a wooden or metal frame. This method of production places mizu-yokan in a category of sweets called "ryushimono". Many other ingredients are used in addition to the standard koshi-an (smooth red bean paste) and tsubu-an (coarse red bean paste). Fresh cream or chocolate are sometimes used as substitutes to the traditional bean paste, signifying the evolution of this well-known treat. The difference between yokan and mizu-yokan lies in the amount of agar used. Generally speaking, mizu-yokan contains less agar and more water. Conversely, yokan contains more agar and less water. It seems that the secret to the texture of mizu-yokan lies in the origin of the freshwater. It is also true that the high water content is the reason they are easily damaged. Another difference, ordinary yokan has a process of boiling and molding. Mizu-yokan, on the other hand, does not have such a process and can be made without this expensive step. This is one reason why mizu-yokan is said to be better suited yokan for mass production. The majority of yokan sold in Japan are mizu-yokan, which makes sense from a cost perspective. However, it is difficult to stabilize the taste of mizu-yokan because it uses a lot of water. Therefore, the taste and sweetness of mizuyokan often varies greatly even within the same mizu-yokan variety. When you find a mizu-yokan that you like, it may be best to stick with that brand.
Kuzukiri is made by dissolving kuzu starch in water, heating it, and then hardening it into a mold. It is usually eaten after being cut into thin noodle-like strips, much like udon or soba noodles. Some restaurants surprise their customers by cutting the kuzukiri into large pieces. As a Japanese sweet, it is served with molasses or soybean flour. Kuzukiri is also widely used in Japanese cuisine as an ingredient in hot pots. Kuzu starch, the raw material for kuzukiri, is said to warm the body and improve blood circulation. Since ancient times, it has been used as a medicine for colds and stomach problems. The origin of kuzukiri is thought to be Kyoto. After the end of World War II, kuzukiri spread throughout Japan, and has become one of the most popular Japanese sweets in summer due to its cool texture and refreshing taste. Recently, there are some types of kuzukiri with green tea flavor and fruits that are typical of Kyoto.
Kingyoku is a Japanese confectionery made by boiling down agar and sugar followed by a cooling and hardening process. Its transparent appearance and refreshing taste remind the Japanese of summer. When kingyoku is further boiled down to a high sugar content and hardened it is called "hoshikingyoku". In the Edo period (1603-1868), gardenia seeds were used to add a yellow color to kingyoku, giving it an additional name of kohaku-kan. The transparent appearance is not the only characteristic of Kingyoku. This sweet is filled with red bean paste in a way that gives it various shapes. For example, there are those that resemble goldfish and many other types of fish. In some cases, azuki beans, cream, or fruit are also added. Since it is a transparent candy, you can see these various fillings through the hard candy shell. It is the perfect wagashi to accompany the late afternoon summer breeze.
Nerikiri is a wagashi made from sugared white bean paste, yams and some powder to bind everything together. Since the wagashi is made primarily with bean paste, there is a high degree of freedom in how to sculpt and create objects. Nerikiri are often molded to look like plants and animals, most commonly, birds and flowers. The popularity of nerikiri is increasing in Japan because the ingredients are relatively easy to find and can be made at home. Also, because there is no limit to the types of objects that can be formed, nerikiri can be enjoyed year round. At Japanese sweets stores and specialty shops, nerikiri are carefully sculpted one by one with craftsmen like care. Finely crafted nerikiri are often used for celebrations and tea ceremonies. Due to higher demand, the price of white azuki beans have been rising in recent year, and the number of nerikiri made with regular azuki beans are becoming more common.
Shaved Ice Kakigori
Kakigori is a Japanese treat made by placing shaved ice in a bowl and pouring syrup or molasses over the top. Ice cream, fruit and agar are other popular toppings. In the old days, ice from clear streams were shaved to make kakigori. Until the advent of refrigerators, buying chunks of ice from an ice shop was a common sight. Kakigori is a dessert that brings back nostalgic memories to many older Japanese, of them as children happily surrounding an ice shaving machine to get their bowls filled. In more recent times, kakigori has become a popular sweet enjoyed during summer festivals and at the beach. In Kagoshima Prefecture, located in the south of Japan, there is kakigori called "Shirakuma Ice," which contains a large amount of condensed milk, fruit and ice cream. Not only in Japan, but shaved ice desserts are widely enjoyed throughout Southeast Asia, with similar sweets found in Taiwan, the Philippines and Korea. Taiwanese shaved ice desserts are especially famous for their large amounts of delicious fruits such as mango, strawberry and melon. Recently, the popularity of kakigori has been increasing in Japan due to similar innovations with ingredients. Kakigori specialty stores are busy with long lines winding outside of the entrance. Although the prices are high, ranging from 2,000 yen to 3,000 yen--roughly 15 to 25 US dollars--many people flock to them for kakigori to temper the heat of summer.
Anmitsu is a Japanese confectionery made of agar cut into rectangles, topped with azuki or endo beans, red bean paste, and fruit, all covered with kuromitsu (black honey). Both Tokyo and Kyoto stake claim to the birthplace of anmitsu. According to one theory, this sweet was invented by the haiku poet Hashimoto Yumemichi. Anmitsu is sold in all seasons, but it is especially recognized as a summer Japanese sweet. It is also called differently depending on the ingredients that are put on top of the agar base. Anmitsu with fresh cream or ice cream as a topping are called Cream Anmitsu. Ones with a white egg on top are called Shiratama Anmitsu, and if it has a generous fruit topping, it is called Fruits Anmitsu. There are also Sakura Anmitsu and Matcha Anmitsu, rounding out the iconic Japanese dessert ingredients.
Wagashi in the Shape of the Ayu Fish: Wakaayu
Wakaayu is a Japanese confectionery made of sponge cake dough wrapped around a filling of red or white bean paste. It is also a wagashi sold from summer to autumn, the season of the ayu fish, which inhabit clear and clean mountain rivers of Japan. The eyes and tail fins of ayu fish are branded on the top of the dessert. It is a wagashi that visually reminds us of the coming of summer. The taste is similar to that of the dorayaki, which is also a sponge cake filled with red bean paste. However, the dorayaki has more variations in flavor. Fruit dorayaki and cream dorayaki are sold as seasonal twists to the traditional bean paste version. Wakaayu are usually special orders from Japanese confectionery stores, while dorayaki are sold everywhere in Japan. If you want to try a summer-only wagashi, you may want to try wakaayu.
Summer Japanese Wagashi with a Refreshing Feel
Summers in Japan are hot and humid, and the wagashi of this season are designed to cool the senses and represent summer in fun and colorful ways. Common are shapes that remind us of our natural world, with flowers and animals as popular themes. Kuzu powder and agar are ingredients that don't have much flavor or aroma of their own, but play a big part in summer desserts for their refreshing transparent appearance and ability to adapt to a variety of other ingredients without taking away from their taste. Also, unlike ice cream and cake, it is low in carbohydrates and fat. When visiting Japan in the summer, we definitely recommend trying summer wagashi to get through the heat and humidity.