When you wolf down your afternoon-pick-me-up chocolate bar, or pull your soggy biscuit out from your cup of tea, do you ever feel inspired to stop and ponder on the beauty of the season? …no, I didn’t think so!
How about reconnecting with the seasons by trying wagashi? Japanese cuisine is very closely tied in with the seasons, and this includes their sweets. Of course, you can buy all the garishly-packaged chocolate bars at any combini (convenience store), but if you stop in at a tea-house for a warm cup of matcha (whisked powdered green tea), alongside it you will be served a delicate, bite-sized sweet to balance out the bitterness of the tea. These wagashi 和菓子(Japanese confectioneries) are designed to celebrate nature’s gifts of each season and in autumn, for example, are individually shaped into maple leaves, chestnuts, gingko leaves, persimmons and other traditional autumnal motifs.
The staple ingredients of wagashi are simply bean paste (red or white azuki beans, or white kidney beans) and unrefined sugar, although other elements can also be added to create a variety of flavours, textures and colours.
“Delicious Japanese sweets full of natural goodness. “Wagashi” contains red bean, kidney beans, glutinous rice, powdered rice, sweet potatoes, sesame, agar-agar and sugar. “Wagashi” is full of sun kissed goodness and high in plant protein. There is almost no animal fat, which makes it a wholesome, healthy product. Natural unrefined sugar is one of the important ingredients in “Wagashi”. “
~ Wagashi confectioners Minamoto Kitchoan
The Art of the Five Senses
“Wagashi is sometimes called an art of collaboration among the five senses. In evoking the seasons and landscape of Japan, the shapes, colors, and designs of wagashi appeal to the sense of sight. The rich flavors of natural ingredients appeal to the sense of taste. The textures we experience when we take the confections by hand, cut them for serving, or place them in our mouth, appeal to the sense of touch. The delicate aromas appeal to the sense of smell. Even the sense of hearing is stimulated by the sound of the lyrical names, with their literary or seasonal associations. Thus, our appreciation of each small confection is greatly expanded by five layers of sensual stimulation.”
Celebrating the Seasons in Japan
The Japanese aesthetic is deeply entwined with the changing of the seasons and the perception of impermanence. Traditional colours are named after the blessings of nature that represent seasonal transitions such as uguisu-iro (nightingale colour) and sakura-iro (cherry blossom colour).
Until the late 19th century when the Gregorian calendar was introduced, the Japanese followed the lunisolar calendar, based on the cyclical phases of the moon and the solar year. The solar year is separated into 24 periods each with a seasonal term.
…It seems the extreme temperatures in July and January curbed any real enthusiasm to dream up any more poetic names for these periods!
If you want to discover the delights of seasonal wagashi for yourself and you’re not in Japan, you can find them at Minamoto Kitchoan (London, NY, SF, Singapore, Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong) or at Toraya (Paris, Illinois).