About 2 years ago my uncle travelled all the way from California to Chennai, India (that’s where I live) to meet with family. In the course of his travel he had to change flights at Singapore. Knowing I was an avid Japanophile he decided to pick up Wagashi and other Japanese eatables. This was the first time I had ever tasted the Japanese confectionery and it was so different from the sweets I was used to in India. Now, Indian sweets can be a tad bit overwhelming to the uninitiated. I still remember the time when my British boss had a piece of laddu (traditional Indian sweet made from sugar and flour) and ended up taking the day off.
Wagashi in itself is a very simple sweet made of three main ingredients – Grains, Beans & Sugar. But what makes it a rich and complex sweet is the way these ingredients are chosen and used. Different grains can be milled to different degrees of fineness, about 5 different types of Sugar are available at different levels of granularity and the Azuki beans come in 2 varieties – Red & White. These 3 ingredients lead to an almost infinite selection of Wagashi. I almost forgot that there is a fourth ingredient – Agar also known as Kanten (only used in select Wagashi). Fun fact: For all you diet conscious people: Kanten is about 80% fiber and once ingested, it triples in volume, which means you can come out feeling fuller and can regulate food intake. But do your research before jumping into a fad.
Wagashi can be classified into two kinds – formal (served during special occasions such as tea ceremonies and come in exquisite designs) & everyday (simple sweets to pop in whenever you feel like and aren’t as ornate as their formal counterpart). Different varieties of Wagashi exist such as Nama-gashi, Higashi, Yokan and many more. All these different varieties help keep the sweet fun and interesting.
Designing Wagashi is an art form and under the hands of a skilled Wagashi artisan these sweets are transformed into exquisite works of art. You would be forgiven for wanting to display them rather than eat them. Wagashi designs are seasonal and therefore you won’t be able to eat a spring themed Wagashi in autumn.
Wagashi has a rich history, which began with the introduction of sweets from China in the 8th century. It wasn’t quite the sweet we consume today because of the lack of sugar in Japan. Fruits were used as a means of adding sweetness. The sweet underwent a fundamental change in the 16th century when Japan was exposed to sugar thanks to the Europeans. Wagashi was not a common man’s sweet, reserved only for the aristocratic. It was seen as the perfect complement to tea during tea ceremonies, balancing the bitterness with its sweetness. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the common man could enjoy this delectable treat.
Wagashi isn’t about taste alone but a feast for the senses and here’s how:
- Taste: This is the most fundamental way we experience the sweet.
- Sight: Wagashi is crafted with seasonal motifs and designs and thus engages you visually.
- Smell: There is a fragrance to most food and Wagashi is no different.
- Touch: Not exactly touch, but the texture of the food that we feel while chewing the sweet.
- Sound: Sound?
Yes!! Even I didn’t understand how sound could be incorporated because it isn’t like a potato chip, which is crisp. A little research revealed that names are actually assigned to the Wagashi. In fact there was a book written in the 17th century called Nan Chohoki – The Gentleman’s Treasury, which was a book on etiquette for men that contained over 250 names for Wagashi. The names were not meant as a way of identifying types of Wagashi but as means of evoking a mental picture and an accompanying sound. Still don’t understand? Let me explain: It’s autumn and now the Wagashi has been created specifically to reflect the season. The person presenting the sweet would choose a name that would elicit a mental picture, for e.g. a name based on maple leaves: just listening to the name alone should bring up an image of walking over maple leaves and hearing them rustle in the wind (Ah, the clever Japanese).
Coming back to the Wagashi that I got, it was a Nama-gashi. Design wise it was nothing special. Just round and it wasn’t one of those formal Wagashi – my uncle skimped out on me (I hope he’s not reading this). But when I popped it in it had this mellow sweetness, the texture was chewy — almost marshmallowy (it’s not the best description) and before I knew it I had polished half the box. The Nama-gashi is considered the ultimate Wagashi in that it can only be kept for a day or two before having to be disposed. This reflects the ephemeral nature of the occasion during which you consume it— meaning, every time you eat some Wagashi it is a unique experience.
P.S: Like my post if you like the pics and none of the pics are mine (just some google magic).
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