Wagashi, A Beautiful Accompaniment to Tea

Wagashi are theoretically traditional Japanese confections but in practice they are as much art as food.

Toshiko Steffes wagashi
Wagashi by Toshiko Steffes

Made for centuries, they were popularized during Japan’s Edo period (1603–1868), when tea was coming into the country from China—and sugar was arriving from the Portuguese and Dutch.

Because sweets pair well with bitter matcha, and the beauty of wagashi well complements the mindfulness of the tea ceremony, it’s not surprising that the confections quickly became part of the Japanese tea ceremony.

The availability of sugar greatly expanded food options for the ceremony, with “wet” cakes (omagashi) served on a cake dish and paired with thick tea, and “dry” cakes (higashi) served on a tray and paired with thin tea (Kaisen Iguchi 1977:46).

Today, wagashi may conclude the meal portion of a formal tea ceremony, which also includes both thick and thin tea. Thick tea, koicha, is exactly what it says—a very thick drink, more like a paste—whereas thin tea, usucha, is matcha that has been whisked so that the surface is lightly covered with foam (Zavadckyte 2017:70). The thin tea is accompanied by sweets. Sweets can be served with tea in informal tea ceremonies as well.

In a recent workshop held at TeaHaus, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Japanese confectioner Toshiko Steffes taught us about wagashi and how to make a simple peach flower for Hinamatsuri, Girl’s Festival, which is celebrated on March 3, when peach trees are in blossom. During this time, prayers are said for young girls, and families with girls display dolls. This parallel Doll’s Festival is also called Momo no sekku or Peach Festival, particularly fitting because peaches symbolize longevity.

toshiko and minae sawai
Toshiko Steffes (left) and Minae Sawai, Cultural Exchange Facilitator, Japan Business Society of Detroit (right)

Beans form the basis of the confections, with nerikiri dough (neri means “knead,” kiri means “cut, pull apart”) made from white bean paste and anko filling made from adzuki bean paste.

beans and dough

A drop of food coloring is kneaded into the nerikiri, which is then flattened into a round.

coloring dough

The nerikiri is carefully wrapped around the anko; once the anko is fully covered, the dough is gently rolled into a ball. With the dull side of a plastic knife, the ball is marked into five parts, which are then shaped into petals by gently pressing the dough outward from the center.

forming petals

Nerikiri pollen, an agar leaf, and maybe even a brushing of “snow” provide the finishing touches, with each person presenting a unique peach blossom!

class
Photo courtesy of Minae Sawai and Toshiko Steffes

flowers

We finished this class with freshly roasted houjicha (see previous post) and our wagashi blossoms! What a terrific evening—and a lovely way to celebrate Hinamatsuri.

class with tea
Photo courtesy of Minae Sawai and Toshiko Steffes
group
Photo courtesy of Minae Sawai and Toshiko Steffes

See more of Toshiko’s gorgeous work!


Sources: (1) Japanese Tea, A Comprehensive Guide, by Simona Zavadckyte, Kyoto Obubu Publishing, 2017; (2) Tea Ceremony, 3rd ed., by Kaisen Iguchi, translated by John Clark, Hoikusha Publishing, Osaka, Japan, 1977.

4 thoughts on “Wagashi, A Beautiful Accompaniment to Tea

  1. I went to a Japanese tea ceremony when I was a kid and I’ve had this fascination with them in the back of my mind ever since. Thanks so much for this interesting and informative post!

    Like

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