Fun fact: I am deeply fascinated, almost obsessed with Japanese culture and food. I feel so drawn to it, almost inexplicably so. Maybe it’s rooted in the beauty, poetry, and philosophy of it all. There is complexity and simplicity perfectly balanced in so many things, from the food eaten to the way of life. I could geek out on it allllll day. Japan is obvi on the top of my bucket list. Matcha, sushi, Hello Kitty, ancient geisha skincare secrets, the list goes on- I’m all about it!
Today’s post is all about an element of Japanese food culture that I love: Wagashi!
So what is wagashi? They are Japanese-style sweets that combine the traditional with simple beauty. Is it art or is it food?? LOL, sometimes I feel like it’s too pretty to eat, but then I remember how delicious it is and just enjoy it 😉 . Wagashi is based around the four seasons, so the flavors and appearances of the dessert offerings will rotate to match the seasons and to represent the joy and harmony that the season brings. If it’s spring, the wags will evoke springtime in every way. Without a doubt, it’s a culinary art form.
Kasutera- Matcha Sponge Cake
As a dietitian, I believe that desserts should be treats- enjoyed in moderation, and really, truly enjoyed with zero guilt. One thing I love about wagashi desserts is that they are made from whole foods and almost strictly plant ingredients (vegan-friendly!) with ingredients like red bean, kidney beans, rice, sweet potato, and sesame as the staples (love!!). They are sweetened lightly with fruit and sometimes a small amount of unrefined sugar. Since wagashi is all about balance, they are never overly sweet, and are traditionally served with a cup of green tea. (See the balance between the sweet wagashi and the more bitter, earthy green tea??) Balance is the name of the game.
Who would have thought a dessert could carry so much intent and meaning? Wagashi is like the exact opposite of a standard store-bought cupcake. When a food is so deeply connected to art, culture, and life meaning (so poetic, right?!), it makes it feel so special. You appreciate the food more, savor it, never eat it mindlessly. Wagashi requires you to eat with all of your senses activated.
Green Sencha Tea- grassy, vegetal, bitter-sweet
Eating with all the senses- such a great practice to implement in our daily lives when we consume food. It makes the meal (or dessert) more enjoyable, aids in digestion, and increases satisfaction. (Nothing is worse than eating in a hurry and not paying attention, only to realize you’ve eaten the whole bag of granola!!) Take the time to pause, really taste the food, and see how you feel.
Our brains need time to register that we are eating before we begin to feel full. This will prevent overeating. Hara hachi bu, another Japanese philosophy is to eat to 80% fullness, which has been shown to improve longevity. It is a concept that has been popularized by the Okinawan people, who happen to be living in what is considered a “Blue Zone”, where there is a large proportion of people living to 100 years or older. They are clearly on to something… Hara hachi bu is one of their several “fountain of youth” pillars.
Hakutou Jelly- White Peach Jelly, served chilled
So where can you get authentic wagashi? Look at Asian grocers, or buy online. But always check the ingredients!! Sometimes companies who mass-produce wagashi use filler ingredients like corn syrup or preservatives like sodium benzoate. A little effort in ingredient investigation makes a big difference. Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods both sell mochi (a rice cake filled with sweet red bean paste), which would be a good “gateway” dessert to trying wagashi, and would be relatively accessible for most of us in the states who cannot jet off to Japan on a wagashi whim.
Langue de Chat- Matcha Wafer; Taiyaki-Matcha Fish Shaped pancake filled with red bean
Keep scrolling through to see some more beautiful variations of wagashi. You can tell that the ones in these photos are reflective of the spring season. Think cherry blossoms, peaches, and floral designs. Oh and bunnies-yes, bunny-shaped desserts!!
Usagi-Bunny bean cake aka cutest thing ever!
Kusa mochi- mochi colored with mugwort leaves and filled with red bean
Oshka Shigure- Sweet red bean in a cherry blossom bun
Shikanshuku- dried persimmon bean cake
Have you tried wagashi before? I don’t get wagashi too often, and normally it is a celebratory treat that I get as a gift on Christmas or my birthday. Each dessert is presented so beautifully, they are absolutely perfect for a special occasion! I will literally take the smallest bites so I can enjoy them for as long as possible haha (after I take a million photos). Enjoy with a cup of hot tea, and you are basically transported to Japan. #goals.
Have a fabulous week!