Matcha and Wagashi has been an integral part of Japanese culture for hundreds of years. The two have become virtually inseparable since they became essential elements for formal tea rites called “Chado” (Way of the Tea) when the practice started spreading in the 1600s in Kyoto, the nation’s former capital.
Photo credit: Mary Sherpe of www.stilinberlin.de
“Matcha”, of course, is the specially grown and processed green tea powder that is considered one of the “super foods” today. “Wagashi” on the other hand, is the general term that refers to a wide variety of traditional Japanese confectioneries usually served with traditional matcha brews.
Just like matcha, wagashi are almost exclusively enjoyed by the kingdom’s privileged few during the Edo Period (16-1867). In fact, the said sweet treats are highly valued in those days, that ruling shoguns customarily used them as special gifts to their (feudal lords), especially during an annual feast called “Kashochodai”.
Wagashis’ pleasant saccharine quality does not only counter balances the inherent vegetal and malty taste of matcha that comes from it abundant chlorophyll and amino acids content, it essentially elevates the whole gastronomic experience.
A venerated art form in its own right, wagashi comes in various gorgeous forms, textures and levels of sweetness. Each unique creation is meant to excite all the five senses. Every piece is meticulously formed, molded and embellished to resemble various elements of nature and the changing seasons such as flowers, leaves fishes, birds, etc. Then, they are given euphonious names inspired by classical Japanese proses and odes to nature.
Photo source: Wochi Kochi Magazine at www.wochikochi.com
Although most wagashi are on the sweet side, they actually come in a wide variety of textures, flavor combinations and appetizing scents. Most traditional Japanese confectioneries are made entirely from a combination of plant products and byproducts, of which the most common are sweet azuki bean paste, rice flour, agar-agar and fresh fruits.
There must already be hundreds of variations of wagashi made to date. This culinary art that reflects the Japanese people’s deep-rooted intimacy with nature and their culture has started even before refined sugar from India made its way to Japan via China. And even longer before ingredients commonly used in European confectioneries such as eggs, flours and cocoa were assimilated in the craft.
Photo source: Banh Wagashi House at www.dep.com.vn
Furthermore, there are several cooking methods employed in making them then and now, including steaming, frying, baking, jellying, molding, pressing and kneading. Here are a few examples of the most popular Japanese confectioneries:
Mochi – a rice cake traditionally made with glutinous rice. It may also be rolled in confectioner’s sugar, sesame seeds or other coatings.
Daifuku – it is basically mochi stuffed with sweet azuki bean paste. However, there were several innovations that came out recently including ice cream-filled and custard-filled varieties.
Dango – made of small sticky mochi balls that are commonly skewered in 3’s or 4’s, then dipped on or poured over with thick sweet sauces such as caramel or chocolate sauce.
Anmitsu – a chilled gelatin cube made from agar-agar and filled with slices of fresh fruits. This is basically the forerunner of mini fruit-filled jelly cups that we can buy anytime from supermarkets.
Yokan – a gelatinous cube made from agar-agar mixed with sweet azuki bean paste. It is said to be one of the oldest kind of wagashi.
Jo Namagashi – This term applies to various freshly made treats that are commonly served in Tea Ceremonies. They are also among the prettiest kinds as they come in various shapes and colors and are usually fashioned after elements of nature such as sakura or cherry blossoms and other plants or cute wildlife.
Monaka – a crispy wafer sandwich filled with sweet azuki bean paste.
Oshiruko – a sweet azuki bean soup dessert with mochi balls. It is usually served hot.
There are several other wagashis that I failed to mention here that you could discover on your own. There may be some Japanese restaurants, cafes and stores within your reach that purveys these treats along with matcha brews.
Photo source: www.adventurejapan.jp
If you prefer to enjoy matcha in the form of latte, smoothie or as part of a dessert item, or in other words, sweetened, let me urge you to try it once in a while to have it in the most old-fashioned way. That is by simply whisking in a small amount of green tea powder in a bowl of hot (not boiling) water. No sweeteners, no whipped cream or other embellishments. And to satisfy your sweet tooth, have some wagashi on the side. Any of these pretty confectioneries are guaranteed to complement well matcha’s umami flavors.