Wagashi, a simple Japanese gift

Wagashi are Japanese confections served with tea that evolved through many centuries ago from the Chinese tea-house snacks called ‘dim sum’.  The word wagashi, derived from the words Japanese (Wa) and sweets (gashi), originated during the Meiji era (1868-1912) to distinguish the confections from European sweets.

Wagashi first became popular during the 14th century (Muromachi period) when trade recommenced with the new Chinese Ming Dynasty, and the Buddhist monks then introduced yokan (jellied sweets) and manju (steamed buns) to Japan.  As the tea ceremony flourished during the Edo period (1603-1867), elaborate wagashi bearing poetical names were given to guests as gifts.

Wagashi are presented in many appealing seasonal colors, shapes, and textures.  Ingredients often include glutinous rice flour, seaweed, agar gelatin, and red bean paste. Natural colors are derived from plants such as yomogi (mugwort or artemesia japonica) and beans.  Making wagashi can be an intense experience extending over several days. Here are two simple recipes for beginners:

MOCHI FOR THE SPRING SEASON

Start to Finish: 1 hour

Servings:  24 squares

  • 1 pound mochiko (glutinous rice flour)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 12 ounces coconut milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups water
  • Optional: Food coloring or matcha (green tea powder)

Preheat the oven to 350°F (177°C).
Grease a 9-by-13 inch pan.

In a bowl, mix the mochiko, baking powder, and sugar. In another bowl, mix the coconut milk, extracts, and water. Optional:  Add coloring or matcha until the desired shade is obtained.  Combine the wet and dry ingredients. Pour the mixture into the pan and cover with foil. Bake for 30 minutes or until firm. Cool and cut into 2-inch squares.

MANJU

Start to Finish:  90 minutes

Servings:  6-8 manju

  • 2-3 cups canned adzuki, lima, or black beans
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup flour, plus 1/4 cup extra
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup sweet condensed milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350°F (177°C).
Drain and rinse the beans. Puree them in a food processor until smooth. Add the sugar. In a non-stick pot on low heat, heat the mixture for two minutes or until it thickens. Stir continuously so it does not burn.

In a bowl, mix 3/4 cup flour, salt, egg, milk, and vanilla. Spread extra flour on a cutting board to prevent sticking. Form the dough into 6 to 8 balls. Flatten each ball and add a ball of bean paste. Pinch the dough closed around the paste. Place the manju upside down on a nonstick cookie sheet.  Bake for 20 minutes.

Wrap wagashi individually in parchment paper and tie it at the top with a flower to make thoughtful gifts.

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Comments

  1. says

    Seeing that these take several days brings to mind the sake I am currently making. I am beginning to realize that the Japanese have incredible patience. My sake has about one more month to go.

  2. says

    Very cool! The mochi sounds delicious with coconut milk and almond and vanilla flavors. These sound like they would be a delicious traditional dessert to have alongside tea. I hope one day I get to visit Asia and test all of the authentic cuisine.

  3. says

    Your recipe sounds awesome but the texture of Mochi always freaks me out! I have tried to just munch and enjoy the flavors but for some reason I can’t get over the softness!

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