What is Wagashi?
Wagashi Japanese sweets are beautiful hand crafted creations that are often gifted for special occasions. Without the understanding the history, cultural reference, art and purpose or wagashi, we can only judge it by the simple aesthetic and taste. After attending this masterclass with Takeshi Inoue of Baika-Tei in Kagurazaka, Tokyo, my appreciation and respect for this artisanal product has increased many fold.
Wagashi is different from Western sweets as they are made of uniquely Japanese ingredients like mochi glutinous rice dough and red adzuki beans. All the wagashi made in Master Takeshi’s store are made with traditional natural food colours eg. the red colouring is made from the yellow safflower.
The art of making Wagashi like this is a dying tradition. At Baika-Tei, Takeshi learnt the art from his father. He has a team of 8 people and they make 100 pieces of 30 different designs every day. Some of his apprentices come from families who own wagashi shops and they will probably return to run their owns shops after their apprenticeship.
Mochi has a special place in Japan. As rice was one of the first food products to be traded and highly revered as there is a belief that “God resides in the mochi“. Mochi processed rice is also the first processed food in Japan.
Mochi and red beans play a big role in New Year Celebrations in Japan. The Red Beans is the red, colour that wards off evil and the white colour of mochi which signifies purity.
A lot of Japanese food culture was influenced by China, like the Manju buns. In China, these were called mantou and were filled with meat. But being Buddhist who didn’t eat meat, red adzuki beans were substituted as a filling instead.
Mantou buns were invented to replace the barbaric practice of using human heads as sacrifices to pacify rivers. When a passing noble saw this, he ordered his men to make steamed dough buns filled with meat in the shape of a head to replace the human sacrifices. This is how the buns got it’s name , or so the legend goes.
How many different types of wagashi are there?
Master Takeshi brought along his family scrolls of all the different wagashi designs they have made.
As wagashi is a reflection of the Japanese love and reverence for nature, the seasons play a big part in their food culture. For wagashi artisans, they divided each season into 6 two weekly sections, resulting in 24 seasons.Each of these are further divided into 3, resulting in 72 different sub seasons. They make a different design for each sub season so that every time a customer returns to their shop, they will have a different design.
Most of the designs are named after flowers, literature or poetry.
I loved this one called “fish Bowl” which is a little carp suspended in a pond with pebbles. It is made of agar-agar.
There are many different types of wagashi, from the snacky Dorayaki pancakes to pretty little Daifuku mochi. Every tea ceremony is accompanied by a matching wagashi, served as the sweet counterpoint to the bitter matcha tea. There are 2 types, the Namagashi goes with the thick green tea and the Higashi goes with a weaker green tea.
How to make Wagashi
Takeshi uses both hand made and bought in tools to shape his wagashi.
Where to find Wagashi in London
There are a few specialist shops that sell these beautiful seasonal Wagashi in London. Minamoto on Picadilly is a beautiful bakery with an ever changing display of their pieces of edible art. You can also try Tetote in Ealing which is small Japanese Bakery. Alternatively, Japan Centre stocks Dorayaki and other wagashi from small artisan producers in the UK.
When in Tokyo, you can find the
6-15 Kagurazaka Shinjyuku-ku
EatCookExplore was a guest of the Embassy of Japan at this Wagashi Masterclass