Don’t expect to find cakes or scones to accompany your tea in Japan. Instead, you’re likely to find wagashi, traditional Japanese desserts made with adzuki red beans, rice, grains, unrefined sugar, agar and fruit that often have a soft, mouldable texture.
Wagashi regularly play a part in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony to combat the bitterness of the green tea, while also reflecting the seasons with different ingredients and shapes, such as cherry blossom leaves in spring and chestnuts in the autumn.
The skill of crafting wagashi is often passed down through generations and Japan even has qualification exams for wagashi confectioners.
In what could broaden their appeal over here, these artsy eats generally use less sugar than Western desserts and are primarily made from plant-based ingredients.
Three of the most common wagashi will be appearing at Hyper Japan’s winter show, where independent traders from London will showcase Japanese street snacks and sweet treats from November 16 to 18 at Olympia London.
The show will also include The Ramen Experience (where ticketholders can try three classic broths), a curry workshop and The Sake Experience, which has a selection of 100 Japanese rice wines. Food market traders will show off dishes like buta no kakuni (braised pork belly topped with spring onions) from Peko Peko and katsu from Don Panko.
So what are the three main types of wagashi?
A favourite in Japan, it consists of two small pancake-like patties sandwiched with adzuki red bean paste. The sweet, spongy cakes perfectly complement the stickier, slightly heavier texture of the smooth red bean paste inside. They can also contain chestnut pieces mixed with the red beans, while more modern versions are filled with things like whipped cream, custard cream or green tea flavoured cream.
The name ‘doriyaki’ originates from its shape: its appearance resembles a ‘dora’ (a Japanese gong), while ‘yaki’ means ‘baked.’ It is said that the invention dates back to feudal Japan, when a samurai warrior left his gong at a farmer’s home where he was hiding. The farmer used the gong to cook round pancakes. In the Kansai area, dorayaki are often called mikasa because they are thought to look like the gentle slopes of Mount Mikasa, also known as Mount Wakakusa, in Nara.
At Hyper Japan, Wagashi Bakery will serving traditional versions like the sweet adzuki bean and sweet chestnuts, as well as fusion varieties like the adzuki bean with cream cheese and matcha custard and mascarpone, to more modern takes like chocolate ganache and lemon cheesecake.
These are cracker snacks made from rice toasted over a flame. Once roasted, they have a crisp texture and alluring aroma. Unlike other types of wagashi, senbei are made from non-glutinous rice rather than the sticky rice that is favoured for mochi – one of the more well-known Japanese desserts in the UK.
Senbei are generally palm-sized and may be flavoured with soy sauce, sesame seeds, sugar and nori seaweed.
Minamoto Kitchoan, which has a site in London and locations in America and Asia, is showcasing its matcha senbei at the show. According to the venue, the savoury aroma and crunchy texture of this green senbei goes well with the lingering sweetness of the matcha cream inside.
These Japanese pastry cakes of steamed dough are filled with sweet bean paste. They can be formed into various shapes from round cakes to pointed chestnuts, while more creative shapes include maple leaves and even small rabbits.
Minamoto Kitchoan has created a version of manju called kurigaraku, which is traditionally an autumn treat made by steaming a chestnut-flavoured bean paste cake with a sweet boiled chestnut in the middle.
“Minamoto Kitchoan want to be a bridge of the Japanese culture for every country. We deliver the Japanese-style confectionery to bring joy and harmony for all four seasons. Lastly, we hope that the word ‘wagashi’ will one day be included in all the dictionaries the world,” added the brand.