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This is a past article published in Hiragana Times. Each Japanese paragraph is followed by its English translation or vise versa, and furigana are placed above each kanji to make Japanese study even easier. [Magazine Sample] [Subscription Page]

Japanese Sweets Convey a Sense of the Seasons

[From April Issue 2013]

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Wagashi are sweets made since ancient times with traditional Japanese methods. Wagashi are distinct from yougashi, or western sweets, which were relatively recently introduced to Japan during the Meiji era in the 19th century. However, many Japanese get yougashi muddled up with nanbangashi, which are European-style sweets introduced by Portuguese missionaries during the Azuchi-momoya era in the 16th century. Some examples of similar nanbangashi and yougashi are kasutera (castella) and sponge cake; bisuketto (biscuits) and kukki- (cookies); or konpeitou (confetti) and kyandi- (candy).

An example of a sweet that anyone would regard as wagashi is “dango.” Dango are small rounded mochi (or rice cakes), commonly eaten off a bamboo skewer. Mitarashi-dango (glazed dumplings) are dumplings glazed with a sauce made from soy sauce and sugar; kusa-dango (grass dumplings) are dumplings kneaded with yomogi (Japanese mugwort); and san-shoku dango (three-colored dumplings) are a set of pink, white and green dumplings. Other than dango, there are many other kinds of Japanese sweets that use a kneaded mixture of glutinous rice and water called mochi.

Though known by the same name, sakura mochi actually refers to a different kind of sweet in Kanto and Kansai. Kanto-style sakura-mochi is a crepe made from wheat flour and water baked in an oven, with an in the center, wrapped in a salt-pickled cherry tree leaf. On the other hand, Kansai-style sakura-mochi is mochi – that still has the residual texture of the rice grain in it – with an an center, wrapped in a salt-pickled cherry tree leaf.

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Dango / Konpeitou

 

An (anko) is made from a concentrated mixture of adzuki beans, combined with sugar and water. An that retains the texture of the beans is called tsubu-an. Smooth, strained an is called koshi-an. It is such an essential ingredient, that Japanese people would say that, “If it uses an, then it is a Japanese sweet.”

Another Japanese sweet is daifuku, which is an wrapped in gyuuhi. Gyuuhi is a case made out of mochi. Mame-daifuku has black soy beans in the gyuuhi; kusa-daifuku has yomogi kneaded in; shio-daifuku has added salt; and ichigo-daifuku has a whole strawberry inside its an filling.

Manjuu (steamed buns) is another Japanese sweet which is made in a similar way to daifuku. Instead of a mochi coating, manjuu has an outer shell made of wheat or some other kind of kneaded dough. One of the most famous rakugo (the art of traditional storytelling) stories is “Manjuu Kowai” (I’m scared of Manjuu). In the story a man confesses that, “What scares me the most is manjuu!” When his friends play a mean joke on him and throw a manjuu into his room, he chows down on the manjuu saying, “I’m so scared of tea now.”

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Sakura-mochi / Ichigo daifuku (tsubuan)

 

Just like manjuu and daifuku, there are many other Japanese sweets made by wrapping a piece of an in mochi or dough. The name of the sweet changes, depending on the ingredients and the way it is made. For example the casing for the wagashi known as monaka is made from powdered rice mixed with water. This mochi is then steamed, rolled out and baked in an oven giving the sweet its signature crisp coating. A taiyaki casing is made from flour mixed with water that is baked in a metal mold in the shape of a tai (sea bream). In Japan, sea bream is considered to be a “medetai” or auspicious fish.

Dorayaki is a Japanese sweet made by sandwiching a piece of an between two pieces of castella sponge cake. Castella is nanban-gashi, made to a recipe specific to Japan that involves adding honey or starch syrup for a moist texture. There are other variations of this treat: mixing fresh cream in with the an filling, or substituting chestnut and custard cream for the an. The Japanese animated cartoon character “Doraemon” really loves dorayaki.

Made by pouring an into a mold, then chilling it and hardening with kanten (agar) or kuzu (arrowroot) starch, youkan allow you to savor the flavor of an on its own. There are other variations of youkan such as imo-youkan with added sweet potato, kuri-youkan with chestnut, and mizu-youkan which has a higher ratio of water to an. Another Japanese sweet which uses mizu (or water) as a prefix is mizu-manjuu (also called kuzu-manju) which is an wrapped in a transparent case made from kuzu.

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Anmitsu / Taiyaki

 

Mizu-youkan, mizu-manjuu, and kuzu kiri (a chilled confection in noodle form made from the same ingredients as mizu-manjuu, eaten with kuro-mitsu or black syrup) are all summer wagashi designed to give a cooling impression. Many Japanese sweets reflect the changing seasons. For example, as the name suggests, sakura-mochi is a wagashi served when cherry blossoms are blooming (in other words, in springtime).

Sometimes the same wagashi might be called by a different name depending on the season you consume it. The springtime bota-mochi is a piece of mochi wrapped in an; the reverse of the way daifuku and Kansai-style sakura-mochi is made. However, in autumn, bota-mochi is called ohagi. Bota-mochi is named after the botan or peony, which is a spring flower, and ohagi is named after hagi or bush clover, which is an autumn flower.

The appearance of Japanese sweets is a reflection of the seasons and of ka-chou-fuu-getsu – an idiom made up of the four kanji of flower, bird, wind and moon, which denotes the beauty of the natural world. Kougei-gashi are a kind of decorative wagashi that are especially designed to be pleasing to the eye. It’s hard to believe that they are only made from mochi, an and sugar and are so beautiful that it seems a waste to eat them. When it comes to these sweets, appearance is considered to be more important than taste. About once every four years, sweets from all over Japan are displayed at the National Confectionary Exhibition; the highlight of this event is the kougei-gashi.

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Kougei-gashi

 

Making kougei-gashi brings out the best in wagashi artisans, who put together their creations using materials like “unpei” and “anpei.” There are different kinds of unpei: “momi unpei” is made by mixing baked mochi flour with sugar and lukewarm water and “mushi unpei” is made from steamed mochi. These ingredients are fragile, but are useful for the intricate molding of things like petals and leaves. Made from an, mochi flour and sugar, anpei is a more resilient ingredient better suited to molding into the shape of tree trunks.

Wagashi allow us to enjoy not only sweet flavors, but also savory flavors like soy sauce and salt. Small pieces of dried mochi roasted until golden and flavored with soy sauce or other ingredients are called arare. Larger pieces are called okaki and flattened pieces are called senbei. Whether sweet or salty, many wagashi utilize mochi rice in various ways. Mochi and an are indispensable ingredients for creating wagashi.

National Confectionary Exposition in Hiroshima

Text: MATSUMOTO Seiya


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