In the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, two types of sweets play a significant role: Higashi, the dry sweets, and Omogashi, the moist sweets. These delectable treats undergo remarkable transformations with each passing season, showcasing distinct textures, colors, and flavors that beautifully mirror the flowers of the time.
Sweets for Koicha and Usucha
To enhance the enjoyment of powdered green tea, it is customary to indulge in sweets before sipping the tea. By finishing the sweets beforehand, the taste of the tea becomes more delicate and harmonious.
In the realm of powdered green tea, there are two main types: Koicha, a thick tea, and Usucha, a lighter tea. Koicha is three times stronger than usucha in terms of flavor intensity. When indulging in Koicha, it is common to pair it with generously sized, freshly made sweets crafted from ingredients like bean paste, sugar, agar, or powdered glutinous rice. These sweets have a water content of over 30%, necessitating their consumption within a day to maintain their optimal freshness. On the other hand, when enjoying Usucha, smaller dried sweets are often served, which have a longer shelf life.
Both the fresh and dried sweets artfully reflect the changing seasons in Japan, offering a delightful connection to nature’s rhythms and evoking a sense of seasonality in the tea ceremony experience.
Dry Sweets (Higashi)
Higashi sweets are crafted from sweet rice powder, delicately pressed into wooden molds made from cherry trees. These sweets exhibit seasonal variations, particularly during spring when they exude the flavors of sakura (cherry blossoms), and in autumn when they take the shape of maple leaves. Higashi sweets are typically enjoyed during Chakai, informal gatherings associated with the tea ceremony.
In addition to the fresh sweets, we also have a range of delightful Japanese dried sweets that add a unique dimension to the tea ceremony experience. Let’s explore these distinct offerings:
- Kakemono: Derived from the words “kake” meaning dusting sugar and “mono” meaning thing, Kakemono features beans or small balls made of glutinous rice known as Arare, which are coated with sugar. This combination creates a delightful treat with a touch of sweetness.
- Uchimono: The term “uchi” signifies striking or hitting. Uchimono involves creating a dough using rice powder, soybean flour, or roasted wheat powder, which is then shaped using a wooden pattern. This process results in charming and intricately designed dried sweets.
- Oshimono: With “oshi” meaning pushing, Oshimono takes Uchimono a step further. The bean paste is mixed into the ingredients used for Uchimono, and the dough is shaped by firmly pressing it into the wooden pattern. Oshimono typically contains a higher water content than Uchimono, resulting in a slightly softer texture.
- Amemono: “Ame” translates to candy. To create Amemono, a starch syrup is simmered and then cooled, resulting in a delightful candy-like treat. The unique texture and flavor of Amemono add a delightful contrast to the tea ceremony experience.
- Yakimono: The term “yaki” denotes baking. In the case of Yakimono, a dough made from rice powder or wheat powder is carefully baked, resulting in a delectable and slightly crispy dried sweet. The baking process enhances the flavors and adds a delightful texture to the confectionery.
These various types of dried sweets offer a diverse range of tastes, textures, and visual appeal, further enriching the tea ceremony experience. Each one brings its own unique charm and cultural significance to the table, ensuring a delightful journey for all the senses.
Fresh/Moist Sweets (Omogashi)
Omogashi sweets boast a delightful combination of flour and rice powder on the outside, enveloping a delectable red bean paste filling. Among the most popular variations is Nerikiri, known for its vibrant and colorful appearance. Just like Higashi, Omogashi sweets are intricately linked to the seasons, capturing their essence and essence in every bite. These sweets are savored at the conclusion of formal tea ceremony gatherings and also find their place in informal get-togethers.
In the realm of fresh sweets, there are six delightful varieties that add a touch of charm to the tea ceremony experience:
- Joyo: These hand-eatable treats, unlike others, are enjoyed using your fingers. Joyo, named after the Japanese yam, brings together glutinous rice or wheat flours to form a moist and smooth dough. Regarded as the simplest of fresh sweets, Joyo allows you to savor the unique flavors and characteristics of the confectionery shops.
- Kinton: Resembling chestnuts in burrs, Kinton features a small bean ball enveloped in finely minced bean paste. The shape of these sweets can vary based on the straining process of the bean paste, and their colors change with the seasons. Isn’t it intriguing and an invitation to ignite your imagination? During a tea ceremony, guests often inquire about the name and origin of these sweets, eagerly anticipating a beautiful name that evokes the essence of the seasons.
- Nerikiri: Combining white beans, boiled glutinous rice, and sugar, Nerikiri is shaped by hand or using wooden molds.
- Konashi: Similar to Nerikiri, Konashi undergoes an additional step of steaming. The mixture of wheat flour and white bean paste is steamed and then adjusted in hardness by adding syrup.
- Uirou: Made from a blend of rice powder, glutinous rice powder, and sugar, Uirou is steamed and molded into various shapes. While it shares similarities with rice cakes, Uirou boasts a softer and moister texture. Its name dates back to the Kamakura period (1185-1333) when a medicine salesman created the sweet to counteract the bitterness of medicine. Thus, the confection was aptly named Uirou.
- Kingyokukan: A refreshing delight perfect for summer, Kingyokukan is crafted from sugar, agar, and glutinous starch syrup. Its transparent appearance evokes the image of cool water, often adorned with goldfish or scenes reminiscent of summertime in Kyoto.
These six types of fresh sweets contribute to the sensory journey of the tea ceremony, offering a diverse range of flavors, textures, and cultural significance.
Other Traditional Japanese Sweets (Wagashi)
Wagashi (和菓子) are exquisite Japanese sweets that have long been cherished and savored alongside a soothing cup of green tea. These confections come in a captivating array of shapes, consistencies, and flavors, each crafted with meticulous attention to detail and utilizing a diverse range of ingredients and preparation techniques. While some wagashi have gained nationwide popularity and are available year-round, others are more localized or enjoyed seasonally.
A key component found in many wagashi is sweet azuki bean paste, known as anko. Azuki beans are boiled, sweetened with sugar, and delicately mashed to create either a smooth and velvety anko (koshian) or a slightly textured and chunky anko (tsubuan). Additionally, wagashi may incorporate other common ingredients such as rice cakes (mochi), rice flour, Japanese agar (kanten), sesame paste, and chestnuts, each contributing its own distinct character and flavor.
You can indulge in the delightful experience of wagashi at select cafes, restaurants, temples, and gardens that serve traditional green tea. These exquisite sweets can also be found at specialty sweet shops, department stores, supermarkets, convenience stores, and food stands. Kyoto, in particular, boasts a wealth of renowned wagashi shops, while the Nakamise shopping street in Asakusa is a delightful destination for sampling a wide array of traditional Japanese sweets from Tokyo.
Whether you’re seeking to satisfy your sweet tooth, appreciate culinary artistry, or immerse yourself in the rich cultural traditions of Japan, wagashi is a delightful indulgence that offers a glimpse into the country’s esteemed confectionery heritage.
Below are some of the most common wagashi types
Namagashi, also known as raw sweets, are exquisite Japanese confections that are closely associated with wagashi. These delicate treats are crafted from rice flour and filled with a luscious sweet bean paste. Expert artisans shape namagashi by hand, meticulously creating designs that reflect the essence of each season. These captivating sweets are often served during tea ceremonies, adding elegance and flavor to the experience.
Daifuku is a beloved delicacy made from soft, pillowy rice cake (mochi) enveloping a delectable filling of smooth sweet bean paste. These delightful treats are typically dusted with a light coating of potato starch to prevent sticking. Daifuku comes in various enticing variations, including popular flavors like strawberry (ichigo), bean (mame), and even ice cream. To savor the true pleasure of daifuku, it’s best to enjoy them promptly, as they can become firm if left exposed.
Dango is a delightful treat consisting of chewy, bite-sized dumplings made from rice flour. These dumplings are steamed to perfection and often served skewered, with three or four dumplings adorning a stick. Dango is topped with a sweet sauce or bean paste, adding a burst of flavor to each bite. These versatile dumplings also find their way into other desserts such as anmitsu and oshiruko. For the best experience, indulge in dango when it’s freshly prepared.
Dorayaki is a delectable delight that features a tantalizing combination of sweet bean paste sandwiched between two delectable pancake-like patties. This scrumptious treat has gained popularity, especially as it is the favorite snack of Doraemon, a beloved anime character. Modern variations of dorayaki may feature alternative fillings like whipped cream, custard cream, or green tea-flavored cream, adding a delightful twist to this classic confection.
Taiyaki is a charming fish-shaped snack made from a batter resembling pancake batter. It is filled with a delightful sweet bean paste, although modern versions may feature alternative fillings such as custard cream, chocolate, or cheese. Taiyaki is best enjoyed when it’s fresh off the grill, allowing the batter to retain its delightful crispiness.
Manju are small buns that are either steamed or baked to perfection, offering a delightful texture and taste. These buns are traditionally filled with sweet bean paste or other delectable sweet fillings. While the classic manju features a round shape with a smooth outer layer, baked versions in various appealing shapes have also gained popularity. For instance, Hiroshima is renowned for its momiji-manju, featuring a maple leaf shape.
Anmitsu is a delightful dessert that combines the richness of sweet bean paste, rice flour dumplings, vibrant fruits, and cubed kanten agar, all elegantly drizzled with a luscious brown sugar syrup known as kuromitsu. It may also include a delightful scoop of ice cream, transforming it into “cream anmitsu” and adding a delightful twist to this enchanting treat.
Oshiruko and zenzai are indulgent dessert soups that warm the soul. Oshiruko features a velvety, hot sweet bean soup accompanied by grilled rice cakes (mochi) or rice flour dum