Wagashi at HYPER JAPAN
Chances to sample genuine wagashi in the UK are limited, especially outside of London, but there if you’re determined. At HYPER JAPAN, we’ve been pleased to welcome some of the leading suppliers of wagashi in the UK; our Christmas Market will feature both Wagashi Japanese Bakery and Minamoto Kitchoan! The Wagashi Japanese Bakery has been selling hand-made Japanese confections in the UK for 25 years, including their very popular dorayaki, or a pair of mini pancakes filled with sweetened red bean paste. At HYPER JAPAN you can get your hands on deliciously authentic, handmade dorayaki from Wagashi Ltd.
Flavours include Matcha Mascarpone, Kuri (Red Bean with Chestnut Pieces), Custard, Matcha Custard, Red Bean (Azuki) and Cream Cheese Anko. Minamoto Kitchoan. The creations of this internationally successful confectioners are not only delicious – We defy anyone not to like the Fukuwatashi Senbei – but also beautifully presented. Their website also showcases a stunning selection of seasonal wagashi. Of Fruits and Flowers.
Although we refer to these Japanese confections as wagashi, the wa (和, meaning ‘of Japan’) is a recent affix, added around the 19th century, it’s thought, to distinguish between traditional sweets (和菓子 wa-gashi) and sweets from ‘the West’, which included things like Pao de Castela, brought to Japan by Portuguese merchants. These Western sweets were originally referred to as nanban-gashi (南蛮菓子), and today are known as yo-gashi (洋菓子).
Common to all these terms is kashi or gashi, which in Japanese is written 菓子. This is originally a Chinese word meaning ‘fruit’ (but also including other ‘fruits’ from plants, such as nuts), reflecting the fact that the very first desserts were little more than servings of naturally sweet fruits and berries.
Wagashi, to use the modern term, began to develop into something more than the seasonal bounty of nature thanks to the introduction of grain processing from China at the beginning of the 8th century. These Chinese sweets (togashi, or 唐菓子) were made of kneaded wheat or flour, often deep-fried in oil. The Japanese versions that were created based on togashi were, just as in China, only something enjoyed by the aristocracy. Sugar was a rarity in both countries, and certainly not something to be ‘wasted’ on confectionery. Amazura-sen, a sweet syrup made from plant sap, was used to sweet confections or poured on top when served.
From earliest times, wagashi were inspired by nature, the kneaded doughs were moulded into representations of the flora and fauna of the season, and presented wrapped in leaves to complement colour and shape. This can still be seen today, and indeed refinement of culinary techniques now allows the wagashi confectioner to infuse sweets with the scents of the season or recreate the exact shade of a certain flower just as it blossoms.
Tea and Cake
The tea ceremony had a strong influence on the development of wagashi in Japan. The wabi-cha style of tea ceremony, associated with Sen no Rikyu, favoured simple confections to be served with the bitter matcha tea, such as fruits or manju buns. It’s thought that, over time, as the tea ceremony became more popular, the ‘industry’ of wagashi developed in response to growing demand, and artisan traditions were born. Many of the oldest wagashi businesses have their origins in the ancient capital of Kyoto, including Toraya Confectionery.
Changes in the social structure in Japan, over time, resulted in greater wealth and more time for leisure pursuits, meaning that more people became able to enjoy confections, outside of the context of the tea ceremony. This helped to support the development of wagashi businesses, and encourage the intricate craftsmanship that continues to develop today.
Wagashi continue to be eaten and enjoyed today, and are gaining increasing popularity outside of Japan, too. Walk into any wagashi store in Japan (you can often find outlets in the basement food departments of department stores, too) and take in the loveliness of the items on offer, from delicate pink buns stuffed with bean jelly, to bean-studded yokan, a jelly-type sweet set with kanten seaweed instead of gelatine, or mochi perfectly shaped into the local specialty fruit, lightly dusted and lovingly wrapped.
The attention to detail and care in presentation that is one of the characteristics of Japanese food is evident in Japan’s yogashi too. Order a waffle or a slice of cake or a fusion sweet that combines Japanese flavours with Western desserts, and it’s more than likely that the confection brought to your table will be a delight to the eye as much as the tongue.