A Guide to Wagashi: Japan’s Traditional Teatime Snack
The Japanese treats known as wagashi come in a wide variety of styles, colors and flavors. Some are so beautiful and delicate you can hardly bring yourself to eat them, while modern varieties like mochi-wrapped ice cream are made for eating anytime, anywhere. Dive into the wonderful world of wagashi to discover the history and culture of these traditional desserts.
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The History of Wagashi
Many believe that mochi, which is the basis of many traditional wagashi, is Japan's oldest processed food. This versatile dough made from rice flour was formerly eaten only by aristocrats, and then during the Heian Period (794-1192) was used to make offerings for the gods.
The wide variety of wagashi available today came about gradually, starting during the Edo Period (1603-1868). During this time, the country's national isolation policy allowed Japanese arts and cultures to flourish. The spread in popularity of tea ceremonies further encouraged the cultivation of wagashi culture, as it became customary to enjoy seasonal wagashi while drinking tea.
Wagashi and Western Confections
During the Edo Period, trade with foreign countries was severely restricted. The only port open to Western and Chinese trade was the port of Nagasaki, where the Dutch East India Trading Company was permitted to establish a post. Nevertheless, Chinese and Western confections had a profound influence on wagashi.
One of the oldest Western desserts brought to Japan was the Castella sponge cake. Introduced by Portuguese traders during the 1600's, the cake known as kasutera in Japan remains extremely popular today.
The Meiji Period
The arrival of the Meiji Period in 1869 eased government restrictions on trade. The prices of commodities used in modern wagashi production, such as wheat flour and sugar, fell, while baking and cooking technologies improved. This meant more and more people had the opportunity to enjoy and experiment with wagashi.
Wagashi in the Modern Era
Wagashi are still a part of daily life in Japan, although some varieties are more popular than others. In the spring, no trip to see the sakura (cherry blossoms) would be complete without a stick of hanami dango. These delicious tri-colored dango, made by steaming a paste of rice flour and water, are a symbol of spring. Taiyaki, a crispy dessert made by baking flour and fillings on a hot pan shaped like a sea bream, are available on every corner. Modern varieties even come in flavors like tiramisu, pizza and chocolate.
With such a wide variety of both modern and traditional wagashi to choose from, there is sure to be something for everyone. For the sweet tooth coming to Japan, sinking your teeth into the local sugary treat is a must and luckily there are a wealth of them to try here.