Traditional Japanese Sweets
Wagashi have a long and delicious history dating back over 1,000 years. The word wagashi is made up of wa-, meaning ‘of Japan’, and –gashi, from –kashi, which interestingly means fruit! This is because what eventually evolved into the confectionery that we know as wagashi began as simple fruits, and ‘fruits’ from other plants, such as nuts and berries. These were important supplements to the ancient Japanese people’s diet, which also consisted of grains such as rice, millet and wheat. Kashi, or gashi, can be seen in the words nanbangashi, which referred to sweets brought mainly from Portugal and Spain, (and which eventually became known as western-style wagashi), and yogashi, which is the term by which western sweets are called.
Wagashi have a deep and profound connection with Japanese seasons, and they are beautifully designed to represent different elements of the natural world. This great attention to detail, which includes often highly elaborate presentation, has been developed to an art form, and is part of the well-known Japanese hospitality called omotenashi.
Even as Japanese confectioneries developed into slightly more complex forms, they remained plant based; the main ingredients being red azuki beans, sweet potatoes, grains and agar (kanten), with sweeteners such as syrup made from plant sap, or rice malt. Since cattle were not common in ancient Japan, non-dairy confectioneries were the norm. Many of the wagashi today still follow the traditional methods of manufacturing. These low cholesterol, low animal fat, mostly all natural sweets are considered a “healthy” sweet, as compared to the typical high fat, high sugar, high caloric western confections.
Trade played a major role in introducing the prototypes of sweets to Japan that were eventually refined into wagashi through the filter of Japanese culture and tradition. Beginning approximately after the 7th – 8th centuries, envoys sent from Japan to China returned with confectioneries that were made of kneaded flours from processed grains molded into various shapes, often fried in oil. This was a much more sophisticated technique than the one used at that time in Japan, and acted as a catalyst towards advancing sweets technology and production. These sweets were considered very precious, available only to the elite, and it would be many years before the general public would be able to enjoy them.
In the 16th -17th centuries, sweets were introduced by Spain and Portugal, the only two countries who had then had trading privileges with Japan. These sweets, called nanbangashi, or exotic style sweets, became ‘japanized’ over time, to the extent that today they are not considered foreign sweets, but part of wagashi. They include castella, kompeito, boro, biscuits, sweet bread, and the like, and their use of processed sugar revolutionized sweet making in Japan.
During the early 17th – mid-19th century, the tea ceremony, which centered about Kyoto, developed into the ritual as we know it today. The ceremony, which was enjoyed by the ruling classes at that time, was seen as being heavily influential in the evolution of wagashi, which were served as an indispensable accompaniment to tea. Creation of wagashi was taken to a new level as artisans competed with each other to produce intricate works of art.
As time passed, changes in the social structure allowed for more leisure time for the general public, and while previously confectioneries were only enjoyed by the aristocracy, now more people were able to savor wagashi such as sakura mochi, daifuku, botamochi, etc. During the Meiji Era, (mid-19th – early 20th century), more western cakes and desserts entered Japan further influencing wagashi. In fact, the word wagashi came into existence around 1920, in order to differentiate between traditional Japanese confectioneries and Western ones, called yogashi.
And so, when we look at the yokan or the dorayaki that we’re munching on for a snack, or the kuzu manju offered by a friend on a hot summer’s day, we know that we are enjoying a sweet whose rich history had a humble beginning over 1,000 years ago and has been evolving ever since. Many of the classical ingredients and manufacturing methods have been carefully preserved and continue to be used, while, at the same time, new methods and ingredients are assimilated, creating a wonderful union of indigenous and foreign tastes, tantalizing to look at and delightful to eat.