Wagashi: The Wonderful World of Japanese Desserts

Bursting with bright colour, artistic beauty, and finger-licking flavour, traditional Japanese desserts or ‘sweets’ – wagashi (和菓子) – is food heaven for foodies.

Compared to the sharp sweetness hit of Western desserts, Japanese desserts take a more creative and subtle approach: a delicate dose of sweetness that gently dissolves in the mouth and infatuates even those without a sweet-tooth. Yes… really.

Uniquely, Japanese desserts are plant-based and often gluten free (made with rice flour).

The four key wagashi ingredients of mochi, bean paste (anko), fruit, and gelatin often make for light and fluffy desserts. The ultimate comfort food that causes addiction across Japan.

An intriguing history

Japan’s sweet tooth dates back to the Yayoi period (300 B.C-300 A.D), when locals foraged for fruits and nuts to taste their natural sweetness. It was not until the Edo period (1603-1868) that dessert making exploded – thanks to sugar imports and Okinawa sugarcane production – but only the aristocracy were deemed worthy enough to enjoy them. However, the Meiji period’s (1868-1912) globalisation and westernisation lifted production even further, meaning everyone could feast on desserts. The term wagashi 和菓子 was now born.

Jaw-dropping variety

There is a wonderful variety of wagashi. Must-tries include sakura-mochi: Japanese rice cake (mochi) filled with adzuki bean paste (anko) and wrapped in a sakura leaf. Plus monaka (bean paste between two wafers), okoshi (crispy rice squares), purin (custard pudding), usagiman (rabbit cake), anmitsu (red algae jelly) and kohi zeri (coffee jelly), and the tasty furutsu sando (fruit sandwich) – best prepped at home with the Masahiro 15m Utility Knife. Most can be devoured in 2 or 3 bites and you’re guaranteed to find something that tingles your tastebuds.

Reflecting the seasons

Each wagashi reflects the seasons through its appearance and taste, highlighting nature’s beauty as it changes over time. Pink reflects spring’s cherry blossoms, clear and white desserts to reflect water and give the impression of coolness in summer, strawberries are made to resemble snow in winter, and autumnal colours and chestnut flavours reflect the changing of leaves in autumn. An attempt at replicating this art is a fun challenge for any budding chef – and multipurpose knives like the Shun Classic White Paring Knife and GSF-22 Utility Knife 11cm will give you the tools you need to pull it off.

Find Wagashi everywhere

Traditionally, wagashi was served with green matcha tea at tea ceremonies. Today, delicious desserts are found in wagashi shops, stalls, cafes, convenience stores and restaurants all over Japan. Feeling confident? Grab some ingredients and pick up the KAI-DM-0700 8.5cm Paring Knife (perfect for cutting fruits) and try making your own at home.

An Anko Obsession

Bean paste filling (anko), particularly red bean paste (from red adzuki beans), is an obsession. Anko comes chunky (tsubu-an), crushed (tsubushi-an) or smooth (koshi-an). It’s found in dorayaki (between two Japanese pancakes), taiyaki (in a fish-shaped pastry), daifuku (wrapped in mochi), manjū (anko balls), on top of dango (rice dumplings), anpan (bread bun stuffed with anko), yokan (jelly dessert), shiruko (anko dessert soup) and more. Fun fact: it’s popularity comes from the traditional belief that the colour red wards off evil and diseases!

Wagashi Day!

Every year in Japan, 16 June marks ‘Wagashi Day’. This practice began in 848 when Emperor Ninmyo offered 16 mochi (rice cakes) to the Gods to ward off evil. It was forgotten and re-introduced in 1979, and today: it’s believed that eating desserts on wagashi day brings you good health and a prosperous year ahead. Fancy some good luck? Prepare your own wagashi day with the help of the Kasumi Titanium 12cm Utility Knife Gold and make it a day to remember.

People go crazy for Kakigori

Kakigori (shaved ice dessert topped with colourful syrup) is the craze right now. The ice is not as sharp as Western snow cones or ice lollies. It’s soft and fluffy like freshly fallen snow  and eaten with a spoon. Just a quick look at your surroundings in summer sees almost everyone holding a kakigori. People charge into specialist kakigori shops, around festivals, restaurants, coffee shops, and convenience stores to get their hands on this refreshing delight. Oh, and there’s even an avocado version!

What are you waiting for? Try wagashi today!

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