Japanese food is revered around the world for its delicious and subtle flavor combinations, in addition to its beautiful presentation. You are presumably familiar with all manner of Japanese cuisine from sushi to soba, but how much to you know about traditional Japanese sweets, otherwise known as “wagashi”? Today we will be taking a look into the background of traditional Japanese confections and going over ten popular wagashi.
What is Wagashi?
Wagashi are traditional Japanese confections which have subtler sweetness than western treats. They come in a variety of forms, and their availability can change depending on the season. In addition, each region of Japan usually has its own special kind of wagashi to enjoy.
Often, the appearance of wagashi is just as enchanting as its taste, and will leave you torn between the virtues of aesthetics and flavor.
History of traditional Japanese Confectioneries
Before Japan had any contact with the western world, the concept of refined sugar was just as foreign to them as the Portuguese who first brought it over to Japan some time during the 16th and 17th century. Up until that time, Japanese confections made do with nuts and sweat beans. Western tradition has been very influential in how Japan makes their sweets today, but of course all the information gleaned by the Japanese at the time was transformed and made distinctly Japanese, as is so often the case when Japan adopts something from foreign shores.
Many wagashi can be enjoyed with green tea or matcha, as their subtle sweetness counters the bitterness of the tea, supporting the flavors of each and accentuating the best qualities of both taste sensations.
What are the 10 most popular Japanese confectioneries?
Below you will find a list of ten of the most popular traditional Japanese confectionaries, with a little information on each – revealing the secret of their wide-spread popularity!
While not strictly confectionery by itself, mochi is used to create many classic wagashi, from daifuku to dango and more. Mochi is made by pounding a special type of Japanese rice called mochigome, until it turns into something that resembles dough. It is soft and chewy, but doesn’t have much in the way of taste, which allows it to add great texture to any confection it’s a part of, without any overbearing flavor.
A classic wagashi sweet and the favorite food of the adorable manga megastar, Doraemon. Dorayaki is basically a sandwich of two castella pancakes filled with red bean paste, but it can also contain whipped cream, custard, chestnuts, and other fillings. Dorayaki can be enjoyed with hojicha green tea, but, personally, I also like it with coffee.
Daigaku Imo, or “university sweet potatoes” are a common street food in Japan, but are also enjoyable at restaurants as a dessert. The history of daigakuimo goes back over a century, to around 1910, when they were purportedly popular with university students, who were said to form long queues for this hearty and sweet snack. Often glazed with syrup or honey for an extra sweet kick, daigakuimo have a crunchy exterior and soft interior.
The consensus among Japanese people seems to be that daigakuimo goes best with milk.
Yokan is a thick jelly dessert made from red bean paste and agar (a jelly made from red algae). It comes in blocks and has a variety of flavors. Prevalent throughout all of Japan, you can find this wagashi treat in most souvenirs shops.
Sometimes rather than red bean paste, white bean paste is used, allowing for different colors to come through, such as green for matcha-flavored yokan.
Daifuku are a truly classic and ubiquitous wagashi delight. They are made from mochi and come with a variety of different fillings. Their outside is powdered with potato starch or powdered sugar to reduce the stickiness of the mochi, and the inside contains a sweet treat.
Red bean paste is the most common filling, but strawberries and ice cream are also popular. One variation, Sakura daifuku, is very striking due to its bright pink color and pickled sakura leaf wrapping. They go great with green tea and are often presented at tea ceremonies.
Two examples of daifuku are:
- Mame Daifuku
- Shio Daifuku
Monaka is made of a wafer shell, not unlike an ice cream cone, and usually filled with red bean paste or ice cream, sometimes both. The shell can be round or rectangular, sporting both intricate and simple designs. Monaka can be found in supermarkets and convenience stores quite easily for a quick sweet treat. I’d recommend having it with some coffee or green tea.
Yatsuhashi is a very traditional wagashi famously found in Kyoto. This triangular sweet is made from the mochi-esque mochiko flour and filled with, you guessed it, red bean paste. The already delicious red beans are greatly complimented by adding cinnamon, making it a truly delectable dessert.
Yatsuhashi are a great excuse to go visit Kyoto!
Higashi are a very traditional wagashi and are a must have at tea ceremonies. These small and aesthetically beautiful treats come in all manner of shapes, from flowers to fish. The intricately manufactured higashi are truly almost too beautiful to eat.
Higashi are made from soybean flour and Japanese sugar called “wasanbon”. Their sweetness strikes a perfect balance with the bitterness of green tea; so don’t forget to prepare some matcha before you enjoy higashi.
Odango, or just dango, are chewy rice dumplings, usually three or four to a skewer. The can come with a sticky, dripping sweet soy sauce (called mitarashi dango) or with the ever present bean paste. Odango are also frequently added to other desserts to give them that chewy element.
You can also roast your odango over heat, giving them a marshmallow like appearance, or cover them in kinako (roasted soy bean flour), which is my personal favorite. Try them alone or accompanied by green tea.
Azuki (Red Bean Paste)
Finally on our list we have Azuki, or mashed red bean paste. This isn’t so much a dessert itself as an almost ever-present element in other wagashi. If Soy sauce can be added to any savory Japanese food, azuki can be added to any sweet Japanese food.
As mentioned above, processed sugar did not exist in Japan for the majority of history, and so it would seem that azuki beans filled the role of sweetener in Japanese delicacies. It’s used in daifuku, dango, yatsuhashi, and most of the other wagashi on this list.
The goodness of Azuki doesn’t stop at flavor, it’s also a good source of fiber, protein, and antioxidants!
With such a variety of amazing treats to choose from, you will never get tired of Japanese wagashi.
Before you go, just remember:
- Japanese confectioneries are called “wagashi”
- There is a huge variety of wagashi to choose from, so you will never get tired of these delicious treats
- Many wagashi use red bean paste as their base sweetener
- Red bean paste or “Azuki” is delicious and healthy
- Matcha is the perfect match for your wagashi experience