Sweet things

I recently discovered a traditional sweet shop close to my home where the current owner is the sixth generation of sweetmaker in the same place - the family has been making sweets there since the mid 18th century, a hundred years before Japan was opened to the rest of the world from three centuries of self imposed isolation.  For a business to last that long it must have something going for it, and indeed the traditional Japanese sweets they make are delicious.

If you know anything about traditional Japanese sweets (and 'ma-cha' icecream doesn't count - it is very Japanese, but just a Japanese take on a Euro-American tradition), you are certainly in a minority.  Known in general as Wagashi (Harmonious sweets), with the exception of the sugar content they are very different from European sweets.  The simplest kind are wasambon, fine powdery sugar dyed in pale colours and pressed into beautiful shapes - I love eating these while drinking green tea (the sweet/ bitter counterpoint intensifies the flavours of each), and it is almost as much a pleasure looking at them as eating them.

Sticky rice cakes (O-mochi) and sweet bean paste (sometimes called bean jam) (An-ko in general, Koshi-an if smooth, tsubu-an if more roughly ground so individual beans remain discernable) are also popular ingrediants.  Sakura-mochi is a kind of rice cake filled with sweet bean paste and wrapped in a cherry-blossom leaf (gives it a strange, fragrant taste), Kashiua-mochi is similar but wrapped in a Japanese oak leaves, while Daifuku is a similar thing covered in powdered sugar.

There are quite a few sweets that are more like jelly, ranging from Youkan (sweet bean flavoured jelly) to kanten and anmitsu (cubes of agar jelly with sweet black syrup).  While these can be intensely sweet, they also have a spectrum of unfamiliar flavours that make them a strange experience at first.  Once you get over the taste barrier however, they can really grow on you.

The best thing about Wagashi is that, because they don't contain cream (or any other kind of fat) they are relatively low calorie, and eaten with green tea (which is full of vitamin c, antioxidants and other good things) they can be positively good for you.  Of course I haven't given up on cream cakes completely (a bit further down the road there is a modern patisserie that makes the most delicious French style cream cakes, where the hyper-cholesterol content of each cake undoubtedly undoes the good of a whole week's worth of healthy eating), but regular visits to buy Wagashi at least help reduce the heart attack time bomb.

Plus eating these sweets is like joining in two or three centuries of tradition and history - I hope the old boy's family keep running the shop for another six generations - in an increasingly homogenised global society, its nice to sometimes be able to taste the difference.


Uploaded 11/14/2009
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