Wagashi - Japanese confectionery art
August 1, 2010 7:53 AM   Subscribe

"Wagashi are traditional Japanese confections that evolved into an art form in the ancient Imperial capital, Kyoto." Wagashi fall into the following categories: namagashi, yokan, monaka, manju, and higashi. Playful and inventive examples of confectionery art abound within those categories.

Some examples:

Golf ball monaka (inside)
Frog manju
Rabbit manju
Tiger namagashi
Ox namagashi
Carp streamer ayu
Bean kids dango

Regional variations can also be observed, as in sakuramochi:
Kanto style
Kansai style

And of course, people blog about wagashi:
Visiting a Kyoto wagashi store
Kyoto Foodie often samples wagashi
Wagashi Pix

Some examples of homemade wagashi:
Goldfish jelly, Sweet hydrangeas
posted by needled (18 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
They look gorgeous, but is it true that they all taste pretty similar?
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:10 AM on August 1, 2010

I'll never forget my first bite into a Japanese rice-candy sweet. I've had a sweet tooth all my life, but it was so other. In fact -- now I wonder where I can get some around here.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:22 AM on August 1, 2010

posted by ServSci at 8:57 AM on August 1, 2010

I would never be able to bring myself to eat the poetic rabbit manju. It would sit on my kitchen table until it petrified.
posted by acrasis at 8:59 AM on August 1, 2010

I love these! There's a great place in Seattle called Tokara where you can buy them. I think that they taste similar to each other in the same way that chocolate truffles taste similar to each other. There are different textures and flavorings, but they're mostly the same general concept.
posted by shrabster at 9:00 AM on August 1, 2010

The goldfish jelly looks really cool, much like acrasis I don't know if I could eat it, more likely I would just look at it.
posted by MikeMc at 9:29 AM on August 1, 2010

In Midtown NYC Minamoto has some very impressive and expensive confections. Too pretty to eat, and not that tasty though...
posted by melissam at 9:39 AM on August 1, 2010

Fukuyadou Honpo, a manga set in a Kyoto confectionery shop.
(online reader)
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:50 AM on August 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've been to Toraya's shop in Manhattan a few times. The clear goldfish sweet was never on the menu when I was there! They are much prettier to look at than taste, but they weren't bad.
posted by swooz at 10:51 AM on August 1, 2010

Neat! I especially love that tiny adorable Year of the Ox plate, and would LOVE to see the rest of the set. And by "see" I mean "own."
posted by Gator at 11:09 AM on August 1, 2010

i love to make desserts, and i swooned a little when the first picture in the first link loaded up…
posted by polymodus at 12:00 PM on August 1, 2010

As for the homogeneity of these kinds of desserts: they are similar in the sense that all pies are similar or all ice creams are similar. As for the tastiness of these desserts: the emphasis is on subtlety rather than sweetness, so will have much less sugar than in typical French/western desserts; moreover they are made from non-animal ingredients so they don't have the same rich taste you get from egg- and butter-based desserts.

So really the fundamental comparison with what we're familiar with is a kind of difference in esthetic that shows up in other art/sensual forms, such as traditional Asian watercolor versus European oil painting.
posted by polymodus at 12:16 PM on August 1, 2010

I grew up eating this kind of stuff. I love 'em, and as a Japanese-American kid growing up in one of the few places in the U.S. where you could easily get them, I also had the distinct pleasure of watching dozens of non-Japanese people get introduced to them. It's usually a weird blend of "Not bad, but what the hell is in my mouth?!" As polymodus says, the taste is similar in the sense that all items of a general group are similar, but for people unfamiliar with wagashi, I'd say the biggest hurdle to overcome isn't the flavor, but the texture.

It hardly ever fazes other Asians, but Countess Elena described the experience of eating a Japanese sweet as being "other", and that's probably not a bad way of thinking about it for Westerners. With traditional wagashi, the particular textures of sticky glutinous rice and the dense, subtly sweet bean paste is not often found in Western cooking. I've heard the pounded glutinous rice texture described as similar to a mouthful of raw bread dough, which makes a lot of sense, and it frequently sets off all kinds of alarm bells in people unused to it. It's hard to appreciate the more delicate flavors when your brain is desperately convinced its in need of more cooking.

I was totally blown away by the beautiful goldfish jelly, but having had my share of agar agar treats in the past, I've come to the conclusion that those almost inevitably look better than they taste. Looks usually win out over taste when it comes to Japanese sweets, but learning to appreciate food with your eyes brings its own kind of special pleasure. Occasionally I've enjoyed exceptional wagashi that delicately teased my palate in eye-opening ways, but most of the time, the flavor is nothing particularly special. Pausing to contemplate its transient beauty is a much bigger part of appreciating the confection than the taste.
posted by Diagonalize at 1:04 PM on August 1, 2010

Bean paste reminds me quite a bit of marzipan, which makes me wonder about the culinary fusion options I could have combining almond paste with mochi dough, or copying the local Asian bakery's tasty snack buns. I don't find the lack of strong flavours has been a problem with anything I've tried before, but then again I like mellow and I find that I like how filling these things often are.
posted by Phalene at 2:16 PM on August 1, 2010

I misread this as ""Wagashi are traditional Japanese infections that evolved into an art form in the ancient Imperial capital, Kyoto." and was prepared for one of the best posts in history.

This one is pretty sweet, however, too.
posted by ersatz at 4:07 PM on August 1, 2010

Oh god I didn't ever think to look up wagashi food porn. Thank you SO much.
posted by mokudekiru at 4:42 PM on August 1, 2010

I never heard of wagashi before and now I would love to see and try some in real life. Some of them are really cute.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 10:53 PM on August 1, 2010

You can taste this picture of a Nakatani Parfait at a pretty well-know place that's right in my neighborhood. Also, I'm currently making a magazine-style Kyoto-themed web show with another long-term resident and the making of Kyo-gashi is one segment that definitely will be in an early episode.
posted by planetkyoto at 5:29 AM on August 2, 2010

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