They say that no matter how full you are after a big meal, there will always be room for dessert.
Whether you are planning to visit Japan and experience the authentic cuisine or simply looking to reward yourself after a tough week (most of these are already available abroad), here are top Japanese desserts that you surely wouldn’t want to miss.
Wagashi (和菓子) are confectioneries that come in a variety of shapes and consistencies and use ingredients like fruits, beans, eggs, and sugar. They are notably eaten during tea ceremonies and have been artfully created by hand. Different regions will have their own distinct take on these sweets and availability can range from seasonal to all-year-round.
At the core of most wagashi sweets is the azuki bean paste (anko), essentially boiled azuki beans sweetened with sugar then mashed into either a smooth ano (koshian) or chunky anko (tsubuan). There are different methods used to make these sweets and vary according to moisture levels. Mositure is important in determining shelf-life. They are made into various shapes which often reflect seasonal plants or the region they came from.
One of the most common forms of wagashi is the wet confectionery or namagashi. Namagashi is made with flour, eggs, beans and sugar and contain 30% or more moisture compared to other wagashi. It usually contains fruit jellies, or other gelatines like Kanten or sweetened bean paste. Additives are rarely used in namagashi which distinguishes them from other wagashi.
Namagashi sweets are designed to look decorative. Their shapes are reflective of the four seasons in Japan and variations are made depending on the occasion or event. Typically, namagashi are shaped like a flowers or leaves. There is a delicate art form used in creating these sweets and highlights the values of simplicity, nature, and health in Japanese culture. Although the basic preparation of wagashi has not changed, new flavors have been added over time to reflect the modern tastes of today’s generations.
The art of making Wagashi is a dying tradition. The techniques are passed from father to son in many Japanese confectionary makers, and also to apprentices from families who likewise own wagashi shops that have been around for decades.
Mochi (餅, もち) is a rice based cake made from mochigome or mochi-mai, a short-grain japonica glutinous rice. This type of rice has opaque grains with very low amylose content. It becomes especially sticky and chewy when cooked. It is stickier than the medium-grain uruchi-mai rice that’s common in Japanese meals. Historically, mochi-mai was only afforded by the ruling classes since its low yield deems it quite expensive. The royals from the Imperial court of Japan considered mochi as scared and its long strands represented long life. The toughness of dried mochi is also thought to make teeth stronger.
Mochi is made by pounding cooked rice in a hollowed-out wooden log barrel (Usu – 碓) with a big mallet (Kine- 杵) until the grains all lump together. While modern equipment such as an electric mochi-pounding machine are already available, the traditional way of making mochi is still showcased in many tourist areas as a symbolic gesture.
During the New Year celebrations, many Japanese households will take part in the annual tradition of pounding mochi also called mochitsuki (餅つき). The relentless beating action was supposed to drive away ku (suffering) into submission. Mochi also sounds like the Japanese word for “to hold” or “to have”, so it is consumed in the hopes of attracting good luck in the coming year.
Typical Kinds of Mochi
Taiyaki (たい焼き) is a Japanese snack that is basically crispy waffle filled with sweet red bean paste or anko (あんこ). This dessert is quite eye catching because of its fish shape mold. The name itself literally translates to “Baked Sea Bream.” Bream is a general term for a species of freshwater and marine fish commonly found in the Mediterranean. Tai (鯛), the Japanese word for sea bream, sounds like the word medetai (めでたい), which means lucky or prosperous, so it is frequently eaten to attract fortune. During the Meiji period, Tai was a very expensive fish in Japan and only eaten on the special occasions. It is believed that one creative Japanese dessert shop changed the shape of its iron mold into the fish shape known today and it became very popular around the country. Nowadays, many enterprising shop owners have experimented with different types of the filling. More than the traditional azuki bean paste, there are also new flavors such as chocolate, matcha, custard, etc.
Kurogoma Ice Cream (Black Sesame)
Dark sesame (kurogoma) ice cream is a prominent dessert in most Japanese eateries. It has a sweet and nutty taste that is truly delectable and a perfect finish to a delicious Japanese meal. It is made using vanilla ice cream blended with dark sesame paste that gives it a distinct rich flavor. Sesame seeds have many known health benefits. They contain up to 55 percent oil and 20 percent protein, making them a high source of both essential fatty acids and certain amino acids. They also rank highest in cholesterol-lowering phytosterols compared to nearly all nuts, seeds, legumes and grains. Who says desserts can’t be good for you?
Matcha is a special kind of powdered green tea that originates from the variety Camellia sinensis. It undergoes a two-step process that allows it to develop its unique characteristics. The green tea leaves are kept in a shaded area for around three weeks so that they can develop high chlorophyll content resulting in the higher production of theanine and caffeine. After harvesting, the leaves are rolled up and dried. Then, the leaves are carefully ground with stone grinding wheels to produce a fine powder. Grinding the leaves is a slow process. It may take up to one hour to grind 30 grams of matcha.
Unlike most tea types that is contained in a bag and steeped in water, the powdered form of matcha is usually dissolved directly in liquid such as water or milk. Recently, Matcha has become a popular flavor in many Western-style desserts such as chocolates, cakes, cookies and ice cream. Matcha tea contains strong antioxidants known as catechins which has potent cancer-fighting properties.
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