The 101 on Japanese Sweets
Japan is culturally eclectic. Somehow, the country manages to keep one foot in the esteemed traditions of the past while the other runs full steam ahead to the progressive technologies and ideas of the future. The same goes for Japan’s sweets and desserts.
When I was in Japan last year, I was overwhelmed and extremely excited by the consistent prevalence of unique and quirky sweet treats. For those with Japanese journeys ahead, a taste for the sweeter things, or those who want to know the difference between their bean paste options, the following info is a starting point for a well-rounded confection education.
Let’s break it down… This is everything you need to know about the cool and quirk of Japanese sweets.
MOCHI, MOCHI, EVERYWHERE.
While we have some pretty committed attempts at replication in Australia, nothing quite compares to the delicate, intricate, and fully legit handiwork of mochi-makers in Japan.
Mochi is a soft dumpling-esque dessert produced from glutinous rice that can be molded and decorated. You’ll find it in everything from your daifuku (a small ball of mochi filled with a sweet bean paste) to dessert treats such as shiruko (a traditional red bean dessert soup with grilled mochi on top), manjū (steamed bean-paste-filled dough buns), dango (skewers of three to four sweet rice flour dumplings; while they aren’t technically mochi, they commonly fall under the same category), and kinako mochi (mochi topped with sugar and roasted soy flour, a treat which I enjoyed after watching its creator pound the glutinous rice with a huge, heavy mallet. I will forever attest that I could taste the pounding effort in the sweet divinity of that dessert).
Mochi has been a part of the national cuisine since way back in the day (think ancient times) as a treat eaten during New Year celebrations and other important festivals – and it’s not going anywhere. A more recent dessert delight you may be familiar with? Mochi ice-cream; conceived in the 1990’s, it’s a fairly new invention and, with an assortment of flavour combos, it’s here to stay.
Japanese confections come in a variety of creative flavours which mesh the worlds of savoury and sweet. My personal favourite flavour of anything is matcha. Thank goodness the Japanese grocery store aisles offer at least twenty different varieties of matcha powder and green tea goodness, matcha chocolate, matcha KitKats, matcha buns, and – my all-time obsession – matcha ice-cream. (That stuff was devoured with zero hesitancy.)
Some of the more interesting flavours you might come across in your culinary adventures include red bean (a common filling for many mochi desserts, and a great pairing with matcha-flavoured treats), white bean (which is made into a paste, shiro-an, used to make certain desserts), sakura (that’s cherry blossom!), corn (as I loved in my corncob-shaped ice-cream “cone”!), black sesame (enjoyed in puddings and ice-cream), sweet potato (candied in traditional sweet potato desserts or, if you can find it, KitKats!), or yuzu (a citrus fruit akin to a mandarin). Don’t be afraid of the seeming strange intersection of savoury and sugary; you can’t go wrong with the plenitude of deliciousness.
Above all, the sweet treats are an art form. Wagashi, the traditional confectionery of Japan that is composed of white bean paste, are a radiant display of many senses: flavour, visual appeal, aroma, and artistry. They are also adapted to the seasons, with treats reflecting the bounty of nature at each point of the year. Traditional sweets such as namagashi, the name for the morsels of magic enjoyed at tea ceremonies, must be visually stimulating and – ultimately – pretty. While at a tea ceremony in Hokkaido, I enjoyed a cherry namagashi with my freshly whisked green tea and it was a moment of culinary serenity.
My favourite sweet dessert and the one which I will actively uphold as the most authentic and memorable of my trip? A wagashi that looked like a fish pond, complete with teensy-tiny roe. Unforgettably and undeniably Japanese.Riley Wilson is a native Sydney-sider who grew up between Australia and the USA, and has travelled extensively. She loves olives, oysters, paddle boards, postage stamps, and punctuation, and is passionate about all things creative and culinary. She tries not to display favouritism when presented with a cheese platter.
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