This past weekend I went to Mitsuwa Marketplace in Plano, and guys, I’m telling you: if you ever find yourself near a Mitsuwa and have a remote taste for Japanese food or culture, you NEED to check this place out! All its stores, from the food court to the tea shop to the bookstore, are brimming with authentic Japanese offerings I didn’t know were even available in the United States. You know I took my time browsing each and every aisle!
One of the stores I lingered in longest was the confectionary shop, J. Sweets, which was filled with sweet treats shipped directly from Japan. I walked into the store expecting to see gummies or chocolates, but what I found was something else entirely. Bite-sized artworks decorated the shelves, each less than an inch big. There were pastel butterflies and flowers, ornate swirls and perfectly smooth balls. There were tiny cakes and shimmering squares of jelly. Most shockingly, there was not a candy bar in sight.
After all, this was not candy. This was wagashi.
Wagashi (和菓子) are traditional Japanese sweets designed as part of the tea ceremony. Though the Japanese tea ceremony is extremely specific, wagashi themselves have a broad range. They come in innumerable shapes and sizes, have unique year-round or seasonal availabilities, and are often tied to specific regions of Japan.
Many types of wagashi consist primarily of red bean paste, or anko. Anko is made by boiling azuki beans with sugar and mashing the resulting mixture. Other common wagashi components include sesame paste, white bean paste, and chestnuts, which are often used in junction with mochi (a soft glutinous rice cake) or kanten (Japanese agar) to create a certain texture or shape in the final product.
All these ingredients are intended to complement the bittersweet notes of the green tea used in the tea ceremony. Unlike the sugary candies many of us know and love, wagashi are meant to be only faintly sweet so as not to overwhelm the subtleties of the tea. Bean paste, sesame paste, and chestnuts all have rich, earthy flavors that fit the bill perfectly.
The aesthetic of wagashi was also created with the tea ceremony in mind. In accordance with the daintiness and specificity of the ritual, the sweets are delicate and intricate, and each piece is formed by hand. The making of these delicacies requires truly artful skill; according to wagashi master Chika Tokora, wagashi artisans in Japan study or apprentice for at least five years before they are considered competent. Five years, people!
While there are many, many types of wagashi, I’d like to give y’all a brief crash-course on some of the most common types.
Namagashi (which translates directly to “raw sweets”) are the wagashi you will see at a tea ceremony. These are the carefully-sculpted, handmade confections that look so pretty I would be afraid to touch them! They are often made to reflect the yearly seasons and are generally filled with sweet bean paste.
Yokan is a jelly-like wagashi made of sugar and kanten agar. They are commonly flavored with azuki bean or green tea. Yokan can come either in small, single-serving bars or large bars that are meant to be sliced and shared.
Dango are small, chewy rice flour dumplings typically served three or four on a skewer. You might recognize hanami dango (pink, green, and white dumpling skewers served at cherry blossom viewing festivals) from the classic emoji, but dango actually come in many other types as well!
Taiyaki might look familiar to some of you. I for one have been seeing these fish-shaped cakes all over Instagram lately, usually filled with ice cream! Traditional taiyaki, however, is a fish-shaped cake filled with sweet bean paste (no ice cream involved). Still, in today’s age you can find them filled with everything from custard to cheese.
I’ll cut things off here, but believe me when I say I could let this post run on forever showing you different types of wagashi. While these little delicacies sure don’t look or taste like the Western sweets many of us are familiar with, I hope that any of y’all who find the opportunity give them a try–they just might become your new staple with a cup of tea!