Wagashi: Japan's beautiful vegan sweets
If you’re like me and the extent of your knowledge about Japanese sweets is mainly limited to Pocky and green tea Kit-Kat, then follow along as I learn about the complex artistry behind wagashi (和菓子), Japan’s traditional sweets.
Wagashi was created in Kyoto as an accompaniment to tea in the practice of tea ceremony (sadou: 茶道), so that the tea’s bitter taste is balanced (but not overpowered) by something sweet. Traditionally, the names and designs of wagashi were inspired by poetry, artwork and nature. Hand-picked sakura, peeking young grass, autumn leaf layers... each one symbolizing a moment in nature and also, the name of a wagashi. The confections are made each-day with designs that reflect the changes in nature every month. These days wagashi aren’t exclusive to tea ceremonies and you can enjoy them in any setting without worrying about etiquette.
Sweets in Japan are divided into two broad categories: traditional confectionary that originated before the 1800’s, called wagashi; and yogashi (洋菓子), desserts that are influenced by Western culture. The main differences are the ingredients. While Western desserts usually contain eggs or dairy, Japanese sweets only use plant-derived ingredients. Japanese sweets are inspired by Buddhist beliefs which discourages the use of animal products and so are traditionally vegan. The main ingredients in wagashi are rice or wheat flour, agar-agar (algae based jelly), natural dyes, sugar cane and red bean paste (anko :あんこ). Even though anko is sweet, it can be an acquired taste. Anko looks a lot like chocolate so make sure to double-check labels when you get any kind of Japanese dessert!
You can usually find a traditional wagashi shop in every neighborhood, giving you easy access to these Japanese vegan sweets. A quick online search of wagashi will probably produce pictures of a type of sweet called nerikiri(練り切). But wagashi means “Japanese sweets”, so there is actually a lot more variety: they are differentiated by how each confectionary is prepared and by the estimated moisture content. Just to keep things simple, they are usually categorized by their moisture content. To get you started, here’s a guide with examples of each type and the percentages of their moisture-content:
Of wagashi, the most photogenic are nerikiri and wasanbon, because their shapes reflect each season and are skilfully handmade into the shapes of flowers, leaves or other representations of nature. Luckily, you can find them in any Japanese confectionary shop. Nerikiri are soft and smooth, they have a light flavour that is not overwhelmingly sweet; they’re hand-molded from a paste made of rice flour and white beans, and typically filled with anko. Wasanbon are made from a mixture of rice flour and sugar, pressed into woodblocks to make intricate shapes— they melt in your mouth and are very sweet as they’re mostly sugar!
Curious to learn more about these delicate sweets and the age-old methods that are used to make them? If you’re in Kyoto looking for a special experience, try making your own nerikiri and higashi to enjoy with some tea. It’s the best way to learn firsthand about tradition and Japanese confectionery while delighting your taste buds with delicious, traditionally vegan Japanese sweets.