A-Z of Japan: W is for…

It’s A-Z of Japan time again, and this week I’ve been wondering what W should stand for. I thought about all of the wonderful World Heritage Sites in Japan, but I’ve only visited a handful of them. I also thought about the concept of wabi-sabi (侘寂), but it’s not something I know much about. Then I started thinking about food: wakame (ワカメ), wasabi (山葵) and, I decided that…

W is for… Wagashi!

Wagashi (和菓子) is the word for traditional Japanese confectionery which is usually served with tea. When I moved to Japan, I thought I would become super skinny like all the Japanese women I had seen before. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Why? WAGASHI.

There are lots of different kinds of wagashi, and I’ve never found one I didn’t like. I found a list of types of wagashi on Wikipedia, which looks pretty accurate to me. I’ve included a few pictures of ones I’ve tried:

  • Akumaki: one of the confection of Kagoshima prefecture.
  • Anmitsu: chilled gelatinous cubes (kanten) with fruit.

Sakura anmitsu set with matcha

  • Amanattō: simmered azuki beans or other beans with sugar, and dried. Amanattō and nattō are not related although the names are similar.[Thank goodness!!]
  • Botamochi: a sweet rice ball wrapped with anko (or an, thick azuki bean paste).
  • Daifuku: general term for mochi (pounded sweet rice) stuffed with anko.

Hina daifuku

  • Dango: a small, sticky sweet mochi, commonly skewered on a stick.

Dango

  • Dorayaki: a round flat sweet consisting of castella wrapped around anko

Dorayaki from Minamoto Kitchoan

  • Hanabiramochi: a flat red and white sweet mochi wrapped around anko and a strip of candied gobo (burdock).
  • Ikinari dango: a steamed bun with chunks of sweet potato in the dough, with anko in the center. It is a local confectionery in Kumamoto.
  • Imagawayaki (also kaitenyaki and so on): anko surrounded in a disc of fried dough covering.
  • Kusa mochi: “grass mochi”, a sweet mochi infused with Japanese mugwort (yomogi), surrounding a center of anko.

Mochi

  • Kuzumochi
  • Kuri kinton: a sweetened mixture of boiled and mashed chestnuts.
  • Manjū: steamed cakes of an surrounded by a flour mixture, available in many shapes such as peaches, rabbits, and matsutake (松茸) mushrooms.
  • Mochi: a rice cake made of glutinous rice.

Mochi

  • Monaka: a center of anko sandwiched between two delicate and crispy sweet rice crackers.
  • Oshiruko (also zenzai): a hot dessert made from anko in a liquid, soup form, with small mochi floating in it.

Oshiruko with mochi (red bean soup with mochi)

  • Rakugan: a small, very solid and sweet cake which is made of rice flour and mizuame.
  • Sakuramochi: a rice cake filled with anko and wrapped in a pickled cherry leaf.

Sakura mochi!

  • Taiyaki: like a kaitenyaki, a core of anko surrounded by a fried dough covering, but shaped like a fish.

A rainbow of Taiyaki

  • Uirō: a steamed cake made of rice flour and sugar, similar to mochi.
  • Warabimochi: a wagashi traditionally made from warabi and served with kinako and kuromitsu
  • Yatsuhashi: thin sheets of gyūhi (sweetened mochi), available in different flavors, like cinnamon, and occasionally folded in a triangle around a ball of red anko.

Ume Yatsuhashi

  • Yōkan: one of the oldest wagashi, a solid block of anko, hardened with agar and additional sugar.

Wagashi are usually just the right amount of sweet – not overly sweet like a lot of Western confectionery. I would much rather eat a few pieces of wagashi than a bag of Haribo or a packet of cookies. Another good thing about wagashi is that it is usually made entirely of plant-based ingredients.

Could I pick a favourite? It would be hard. I do love all varieties of mochi, but if I had to pick a favourite, I think I would choose the famous Kyoto souvenir yatsuhashi. I love how yatsuhashi is so floppy and stretchy – I like how it feels in my mouth. 🙂

If you buy wagashi as a souvenir, do be careful and check the best before date. Wagashi usually has quite a short shelf-life, and is best eaten fresh. Everywhere you go in Japan you will find local varieties of wagashi packaged up as souvenirs – they’re irresistible!

Souvenir shop in Tokyo Tower

When I returned to the UK, I was happy to discover that I could still get my mochi fix. Wagashi is usually available whenever there is a Japan-related event, like the Brighton Japan Festival where I found delicious wagashi from An-An (あん庵):

Brighton Japan Festival, 26th June 2011
If you’re in London, the best place to buy wagashi is Minamoto Kitchoan (44 Piccadilly, W1J 0DS).

Minamoto Kitchoan

The wagashi there is not cheap, but there’s a lot of variety and it is possible to buy individual pieces (as well as gorgeous boxes).

A selection of Japanese sweets from Minamoto Kitchoan
If you’re in London and don’t want to splash out too much, you could stop by Cha no Ma (Baker Street) after 3pm any weekday, when they serve  wagashi with a variety of hot drinks, like matcha latte. They also have “Wagashi Tuesday”.

Cha no ma (near Baker Street)

However, and wherever you try wagashi, don’t let the look or texture put you off. I know a number of people who think mochi is “gross”, but give it a try! I’m sure you’ll find there is some kind of wagashi to suit your taste buds. 😉

Tea and sweets...

4 thoughts on “A-Z of Japan: W is for…

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