If you've already had mochi then congratulations, you've already tried one type of wagashi! And while mochi is delicious, it's not the only type of wagashi Japan is known for. There's so much more to this wide range of sweets than many people realize and while you might need to go to Japan to experience some of it, much of it can be found right in your local Asian market. So, what is wagashi, exactly?
In short, wagashi are traditional Japanese sweets that are eaten with tea or as a snack. The name wagashi comes from the name wasanbonto, which is a fine sugar that can only be found in Japan. This is the only place the sugar is made which makes wagashi even more special because many of these sweet treats have a long history and are very unique to certain areas of Japan. If you needed any more reasons to seek out these treats, then this is really all you need to know: they're some of the most unique - and beautiful - sweets in the world.
When it comes to wagashi, dorayaki should be at the top of the list. This is also the most beginner-friendly of the wagashi world because it's made with one thing everyone loves: pancakes! In between two slightly sweetened, dense pancakes sits a filling that's made with a variety of ingredients. Sweetened bean paste, sweet potato paste, and even chestnut paste can be squished in the middle of these, making for a sweet treat that's not overwhelming but is delicious.
Daifuku is as unique as it is versatile. This wagashi is made with adzuki paste - which is a common ingredient in most types of wagashi - and usually has some sort of a surprise in the center. The most common form of daifuku is Ichigo-daifuku, which has either a fresh or dried strawberry in the center that's surrounded with a layer of sweet bean paste, before being wrapped in the thin mochi layer that's so recognizable on the outside.
One of the most perfect slices of plain cake you're likely to ever have will be in Japan, and it's called castella, better known as kasutera. This sponge cake has an extraordinarily long history with Japan and dates back about 400 years, with each recipe used by bakers being perfected for centuries. The cake itself is very simplistic and is made with wheat flour, sugar, eggs, and sweeteners, which vary from recipe to recipe. This cake is so beloved in Japan that it's not unusual for a baker to spend much of their life committed to creating the perfect recipe and technique.
In terms of the most simple type of wagashi, dango takes the cake - or, in this case, the rice flour. Made with only that and a bit of water, it's surprising to know that this is one of the most popular sweet snacks in Japan. It's sold often by food vendors and since it's sold on a skewer, it's an easy snack to eat while walking around or while on the go. The texture of dango is similar to mochi and sometimes it's even made savory, with a variety of flavors that one can choose from.
The first thing that comes to mind when people hear the name wagashi is nerikiri, although most of them aren't aware that's the name of the food they're thinking of. Nerikiri is a traditional type of wagashi that often changes according to the season; its moldable exterior allows it to take the shape of many things from flowers to animals, and it's made with only Chinese yam, sweetened bean paste, and rice flour. This is the most photographed of the wagashi, as it's usually decorated according to the season or closest holiday.
For those who are fans of jelly or jam-like desserts, yokan is the one for you. This jelly-like treat is made with agar-agar and sweetened adzuki bean paste, both of which are added to hot water. When set, the yokan is sliced into thick rectangles and served as-is, making it a simple treat for those with a sweet tooth. Flavors such as matcha and chestnut are popular, but yokan can take on the flavor of any fruit preserve, as well. Its appearance and texture are similar to that of quince paste, which is made from mashing quince fruit, cooking it down, and allowing it to set to form a pliable, gelatin-like fruit square.