Flowers with pale pink and white petals, lavenders and lilacs are arranged beautifully on a black plate. Their texture is soft, almost squishy. And when you put them in your mouth, they are heavenly. Oh Wait! Eating squishy lavenders and lilacs, which world is this you wonder?
It is the heavenly world of Japanese confectionery or wagashi, as it is called in Japanese. Wagashi is a traditional Japanese sweet made from paste made of azuki beans and other grains, fruits and vegetables with little or no artificial flavours. The sweets are designed based on things that we see everyday like flowers and animals cats and fish. The pattern is so intrinsic that they look almost real, especially in case of flowers.
The first time I came across wagashi was when I was reading a Josei manga. The manga Fukuyadou Honpo was about a 450-year-old family that runs a wagashi shop in Kyoto. The owner is a single mother with three daughters. The story revolves around the shop, three daughters, the town where the shop is situated and its inhabitants. It gives a glimpse into culture, quirks of Kyoto natives and how customs and tradition direct decisions for these shops that withstood the test of time. More importantly it shows readers why Japan has one of the oldest establishments in the world.
It was the heritage of wagashi shops that interested me. Unfortunately there are not much manga based on wagashi shops. Even few that are available like Wagashi no An and Andou Natsu: Edo Wagashi Shokunin Monogatari are not translated making it difficult for me to understand more about indigenous Japanese sweets.
But from what I Iearnt from manga and a little search in google, wagashi shops are mostly traditional and are passed on from father to son for generations even now. In case the family does not have a son to take over, daughter is usually married off to wagashi chef in the shop. This way they are securing the future of their shop. So most of them in Japan are few centuries old at least. Wagashi is served with tea and hence an important part of Japanese tea ceremony.
But that is not how wagashi was in ancient times. As far as history goes, wagashi originated in Nara period for religious purposes. It was given to priests and monk to complete rituals, so they were prepared with care and devotion and usually not available for people to eat. This changed a few years later when Japan opened up for trade to foreign countries. As variety of ingredients flew in, they were used for making different types of wagashi and became a commercial business. They can be classified into three types based on moisture content – namagashi, han namagashi and higashi. Namagashi is a wet confectionery with over 30 per cent moisture content. These include sweets like mochi mono, yaki mono and mushi mono. Han namagashi is a half-wet confectionery with moisture content between 10 and 30 per cent. Higashi is a dry confectionery with less than 10 per cent wetness.
Yokan, which is one of the oldest wagashi, is a solid block made from azuki bean paste, hardened with sugar and agar. They are sliced and served. Other popular ones are dango and mochi.
Traditional desserts aside, in Japan you will find dagashi that are cheap candies and gums you find in local stores. I was looking for more cooking manga or anime after I exhausted popular ones like Shokugeki no Soma, Yakitate Japan and Yumeiro Patissiere. That was when I came across an anime called Dagashi Kashi, about a father, who runs a dagashi shop and his son. Dagashi is very similar to candies I enjoyed when I was a kid. They are cheap, colourful and tasty enough for kids to buy with their minimum pocket money. That is exactly what the name dagashi suggests. The word ‘da’ in Japan means futile or negligible and ‘gashi’ means snacks. So it is a snack that is affordable.
Dagashi can be dated back to Edo period (1603-1868), where people used economical ingredients like starch and corn to make snacks. But dagashi as we see now in Japan became popular in 1950s after World War 2. Between 1950s and 1980s, dagashi became very popular and dagashiya where they are sold became after-school hangout spot. Popular dagashi are Umai-bou (a cheetos like snack), botan-ame (a flavoured candy that comes in edible rice paper wrap) and fue ramune (a polo like gum through which you can whistle). But popularity of dagashi began to dwindle in early to mid 1980s, as dagashiya stores began to diversify their products or were replaced by convenience stores. As of 2016, dagashi can still be found in the occasional dagashiya or ordered online.
When I was reading or watching anime or manga related to dagashi, I realised even cheap sweet and snacks has history in Japan. They not only make an interesting read but also made me nostalgic of times when I used to frequent shops like dagashiya near my school after classes with friends. We used to eat like sticky thean mittai (honey sweets) for mere 50 paise each with paneer soda for Rs 5. With proliferation of supermarkets, I’m sure these small shops would have declined. With times changing so fast, this was only expected that sticky honey sweets and paneer soda are replaced by elegant looking candies and pepsi and cokes.
Though I cannot argue that local store foods were healthy, it was something that I got from familiar uncles or aunties, who always gives us one or two candies for free. Ultimately more than what I ate, what I can remember is the familiarity, musky aroma mingled of these stores and stickiness that refuses to let go of your fingers until you lick them up.