SALT Magazine - - On The Global Table -

To­raya’s 18th gen­er­a­tion wagashi maker, Mit­suharu Kurokawa, gives us an over­view of wagashi. Wagashi di­rectly trans­lates as “Ja­panese sweets”. De­spite be­ing rooted in long his­tory and tra­di­tions, “wagashi” is a rel­a­tively new word, as all sweets were called “Kashi

(菓子, Chi­nese char­ac­ters for fruit)” and re­ferred to fruits and nuts in an­cient Ja­pan. “Our an­ces­tors ate acorns, but it was very bit­ter, so they needed to grind it, and soak it in the wa­ter to re­move the bit­ter­ness. Us­ing this, they started mak­ing small balls of snacks, which is the ori­gin of dango (Ja­panese dumplings) and mochi, the old­est hu­man-made wagashi,” ex­plains Kurokawa.

Af­ter sugar be­came more com­mon due to trade and the in­tro­duc­tion of tea, and with the sub­se­quent rise of tea cer­e­mony cul­ture, wagashi cre­ation took off dur­ing the Edo pe­riod in Ja­pan. To­day, it is re­garded as an art form, its del­i­cate ap­pear­ance an em­blem­atic nod to Ja­pan’s re­fined and pre­cise culi­nary cul­ture. Span­ning forms such as dango and mochi, dumplings and rice cakes made of gluti­nous rice; man­jyu, steamed cakes of thick azuki red bean paste; Uiro, steamed cake made of rice flour and sugar; and of course yokan, wagashi typ­i­cally re­quires a lot of work and is unique to the re­gion and the sea­son it’s made in.

One of the old­est wagashi shops, To­raya, was founded in the early 16th cen­tury in Ky­oto where it be­came a pur­veyor to the im­pe­rial court dur­ing the reign of Em­peror Goy­ozei, from 1586 to 1611, sup­ply­ing wagashi to roy­alty and em­per­ors dur­ing sea­sonal fes­ti­vals and spe­cial oc­ca­sions. Through the years, To­raya has es­tab­lished it­self par­tic­u­larly in the pro­duc­tion of yokan. Some of their sig­na­ture yokan, the “Yoru no ume” (Plum blos­som at night) was in­spired by an old po­etry book that dates back to 905 and it re­mains one of their best­selling items to­day. While the an­cient text did not in­di­cate spe­cific in­gre­di­ents, To­raya’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion con­sists of whole red beans so the cross sec­tion of the yokan looks like plum blos­soms while the dark yokan base re­minds one of a star­less night sky.

An­other sig­na­ture sea­sonal wagashi at To­raya is the “Han­abira mochi” (flower petal mochi) where a flat cir­cle of mochi is folded into a semi-cir­cle which en­velops a strip of bur­dock, white bean and miso paste—it looks like a white taco that is pink in the mid­dle. This con­fec­tionary was orig­i­nally crafted for the royal fam­ily’s new year cel­e­bra­tions.

To­day, [wagashi] is re­garded as an art form, its del­i­cate ap­pear­ance an em­blem­atic nod to Ja­pan’s re­fined and

pre­cise culi­nary cul­ture.

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