Wagashi: Watching the hands of an Expert
My first discovery of traditional Japanese sweets. This article paints my fascination towards this delicate artform and the beauty of crafting wagashi
In the first semester of university, I knew I had a million things yet to discover about Japan. Because of this, the cultural workshops which the dorm staff had coordinated every month were a blessing to me.
Every month in the public kitchen area, workshops are held for us to learn and expose ourselves to Japanese cooking to a depth that is difficult to immerse ourselves in on our own. This was where I learned the word wagashi for the first time.
At the center of the room, what greeted me and the other participants was a series of foreign wooden tools and materials. Oddly-shaped wooden carving knives, flower-shaped molds, arranged alongside some pointed sticks.
A man wearing the classic gray yukata began speaking. He was a wagashi expert who had already held several of these wagashi-making workshops around Japan.
What is Wagashi?
Wagashi are traditional Japanese confections often paired to be consumed with green tea. The kinds range widely from baked, steamed to fried. The different types of mochi, dango, and manju are the most popular and widely spread types of wagashi. They are shaped to evoke flowers, leaves, and other aspects of nature.
The category of wagashi on that day was the namagashi. This type of wagashi is made often to accompany the bitter green tea served at tea ceremonies. They are reminiscent of the four seasons in Japan.
How to Make
That day we made two types of wagashi. Regardless, I was eager to see how this newly found artform works.
Making Sakura mochi
The first one was the sakura mochi. The wagashi expert began by rinsing sweet rice, and then pouring it into boiling water and mixing it with granulated sugar.
Once the rice was cooked, he then poured a bit of red food coloring to dye it in cherry blossom pink and proceeded to mix the sticky rice evenly. Once finished, he distributed palm-sized amounts of the mixture to each of our hands.
We then grabbed a pinch of red bean paste and quickly shaped it into a ball while it was still hot. The last touch was to wrap the sakura mochi into the pickled sakura leaves.
The next wagashi we prepared was the "namagashi". Starting once more with boiling water, but this time he poured in pounded sweet rice flour. Dying it once again with pink, what came out was more of a starchy dough.
After filling it again with red bean paste, we each received the strange wooden knives which we saw before the class began. We watched a demonstration from the wagashi expert.
He placed the wooden knife on the center of the dough and pressed it down to form five fans, and then stamped the center point with a circular stamp. Using the wooden sticks, he then carefully placed the microscopic, string-like yellow dough to the center, and with that the plum blossom blooms.
We could not help but pour out our exclamations witnessing the flower take form
He grabbed another pink ball and punched in it a hole with his finger. Pinching the mouth of the hole to form waves, he then tweezed in again the yellow pollen into the hole. Using the wooden edge, he softly pressed to divide the outer layer into 3 large sections carefully, reaching from the bottom to the mouth of the flower.
Finally, using the matcha frother, he patted over the petals. What came to be was a beautiful peony on the palm of his hand.
We brought our small paper plates with our wagashi to the meeting room. The materials for the tea ceremony were already prepared on our tables, and we followed the directions of the guide.
She requested us to eat the wagashi before drinking the tea. While carrying a tinge of guilt on my fingers, using a small wooden knife, I sliced into my plum blossom namagashi. Sweet, chewy, and starchy, the finely grounded red bean paste harmonizes with the melting dough.
The sakura mochi was quite interesting on the contrary. Sticky and sugary, complemented by the salty, pickled flavor of the sakura tree leaf.
Through that workshop, I was able to learn various information about wagashi and got the fun experience of making one for myself. I look forward to discovering more about the diversity of wagashi in Japan.
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