The way of wagashi

The Way of the Wagashi

For a cuisine boasting natto and a repertoire of raw food stuffs among its delicacies, wagashi sweets are the friendly face of Japanese cooking. But as with most Japanese food and drink traditions, there is a lot more to the red bean paste than meets the eye. Hilary Hinds Kitasei investigates.

It could have been you in a starched white apron and hairnet, stirring a vat of red bean paste, if only you'd paid attention to your neighborhood bulletin board. That's where the notice inviting residents of Minato Ward to participate in a four-session Wagashi Seminaa was posted. Not until I turned up for the first class did I begin to grasp what I had stumbled into: a course given by the master chefs of Toraya, Japan's oldest traditional confectionery at the very apex of that rarefied world--and all for 1000 yen, or the cost of buying just three of their classy little bean cakes.

And what a world it is. In the elevator Yamanaka Sensei and I step aside to make room for an employee covered from head to toe in a white surgical suit, carrying a tray of six dainty cakes. "The Palace," he sighs. Of course: they have the sixteen-petal chrysanthemum design that is the exclusive property of the Imperial court. (The branding iron is borrowed and returned to the Palace with each order.)


The Palace supports Toraya's reputation, but not its bottom line. "We charge customers 300 yen each for these but only 100 yen to the Emperor," I am told. The relationship between Toraya and the Imperial Household goes way back. When the Emperor moved from Nara to Kyoto, Toraya followed. When the palace was moved to Edo, Toraya came too (unlike most wagashi makers who remained behind in Kyoto). This explains why you find a confectionery producer operating a factory in Akasaka, among the most expensive real estate in the world. Fresh wagashi should be eaten the day they are made, and preferably within minutes.

Outside the factory a driver hops into one of Toraya's two marked delivery cars on an urgent mission. (There is no charge for the kind of customers who request this service.) He says he has been dispatched on occasion to deliver as few as four bean cakes to a woman at her home.

mini wagashi
mini wagashi
mini wagashi
mini wagashi

Wagashi comprise a small universe of highly artistic Japanese sweets. From soft to hard you might line them up from shiruko (a red bean gruel), zenzai (a red bean porridge), proceeding through yokan (typically rectangular blocks of red bean gelatin), on to the bun types, and finally to higashi (rock solid dried sugar pressed into wooden molds).

Most wagashi are based on the Mazuki bean. In fact, the importance of an or anko (the bean paste made from azuki) is such that the quality of wagashi is said to rest on the quality of the an. Azuki beans are known as akai daiya (red diamonds) on the Tokyo Grain Exchange. Azuki futures have been traded in Japan for more than two hundred years.

My classmates included aspiring students of wagashi as well as those like myself who were there to lick the bowl. My station's team was pegged the first day as the most hapless, not because its gaijin didn't understand perfectly everything that was going on (I didn't) but because of a leadership crisis. Having an earnest young man with business pretensions, an obaasan who knew more than a thing or two about cooking, a foreigner whose status was unknown, and an aristocratic bride, it wasn't clear who should take charge. That meant we all cooperated on every step--even separating the one egg white needed to brush the outside of our manju. When Sensei yelled out to now "swallow the yolk" we shared that responsibility, too. As a result we over-stirred, over-measured, over-rolled, and over-pinched, forcing Yamanaka Sensei to throw out the whole mess and start again more than a few times. The only thing we were ever too timid with was the red food coloring. Our buns came out of the steamer a bleached pink instead of a bright Barbie-pink that is the Toraya style.


mini wagashi
mini wagashi
mini wagashi
mini wagashi

For our first lesson we went over the process of making bean paste from scratch, by laboriously boiling beans at exactly 50 degrees Centigrade but no higher (the temperature at which hot water penetrates the inside of the bean), straining, re-boiling, and finally squeezing out all of the liquid. The mash is the raw an. Then sugar is added, no less than 60 percent of the beans by weight. The point of this lesson seemed to be to show us how much more sensible it would be to buy the raw (unsweetened) an and proceed from that stage.

The other key lesson learned the hard way was to resist the urge to lick. Like sniffing perfumes, the human sensory system waves a white flag after a point and shuts down. I couldn't even look at the box of samples I took home the first week. Sensei uses a special gauge that looks like a thermometer to measure the sweetness of his an. When asked how often he eats wagashi himself, he just laughed. I never learned the answer.

Some foreigners insist that wagashi are not as sweet as western treats. This is undoubtedly because they have heard Japanese complain about the cloying sweetness of western cakes and cookies. (Reportedly Dunkin' Donuts had to reduce the sugar in its doughnut recipe to make it palatable to the Japanese market). In fact the basic, least sweet bean paste used in wagashi (60 percent sugar) is sweeter than the sweetest chocolate (milk chocolate, about 50 percent sugar). And Toraya's an is to basic 60-proof an as vodka is to beer. Sensei let us in on the shop secret that's been guarded since Priest Shoichi-Kokushi brought the secret recipe to the Heian Court: Toraya Manju tops 85% sugar. Nevertheless, since the rest is protein, fiber and other nutrients, you still do better eating a bean cake than a Snickers bar or glazed doughnut.


Most people who take cooking classes don't actually cook themselves. They like to eat and they like to talk about food. A good class is one that gives out samples as well as enough talking points to affect connoisseurship. Not only was I loaded up with samples every week, I also managed to pick up enough information to be able to talk for about fifteen minutes on "the attributes that distinguish exalted wagashi from ordinary wagashi."

The best way to train your palate is on manju, the ubiquitous bean-filled steamed bun. That's because there's less of a beauty contest in manju. They're all basically white, rubbery-looking balls, so you won't be distracted by visual showmanship. I also believe that measuring the nuances of an are best left to scientific gauge. With all that sugar, the tongue just checks out. Concentrate instead on texture.

With fine manju, your lips should brush gently the powdery surface long enough to enjoy a brief sensation of saltiness, before pressing more firmly into the outer covering, whose texture should be stretchy and soft, not unlike a lip itself, and then sinking down into the dark sweetness of the bean paste below. The outside should offer exactly the same resistance as the interior in order to allow a seamless transition into unbridled sweetness. The ratio of white mantle to red core increases according to a strict calculus. The bottom will be thin so that the rest can be thick enough to conceal the inside (usually, but not always, red beans in white manju or white beans in colored manju).

The only reason to use anything but your lips when eating manju is to experience the grating thrill of putting the sweetest thing you're ever likely to eat against your bare teeth. The principle holds true for the styrofoam varieties (those molded like golf balls, for example). You should break through the thin shell quickly without time for a failure of nerve. How many bites should you take? I asked an expert at tea, since if there was a rule involved, that's where it would come from. It's apparently a rare area of free expression, and probably has more to do with the size of your mouth than etiquette. I can say with confidence, however, that it would be quite bad form to eat wagashi as one should eat an Oreo cookie - the inside first, that is.

This leaves a thousand other potential faux pas for the foreigner, as well as most Japanese, wading into wagashi, and may account for why so many young Japanese have taken up chocolate instead. Some shapes denote births and others funerals, some celebrate success in an entrance examination and others condolence for failure. Just ask. One thing you don't need to worry about is being caught in the sin of being unseasonal (and in wagashi's blossom-sensitive calendar there are twenty, not four seasons, by the way). Toraya stops making sakura wagashi the day before the blossoms drop, so that you might never be caught presenting them when the petals are on the ground.

In any case, wagashi, like chocolates, are best enjoyed as a private pleasure. I, for one, don't believe the woman getting that emergency delivery of four bean cakes suddenly had to throw a tea ceremony.

mini wagashi
mini wagashi
mini wagashi
mini wagashi

Toraya sells its fresh wagashi at five Tokyo locations. (The other outlets, e.g., those in department stores, are not the ones made in Akasaka.)

Akasaka 4-9-22, Minato-ku, tel 3408-4121
Ginza 7-8-6, Chuo-ku, tel 3571-3679
Nihonbashi 1-2-6, Chuo-ku, tel 3271-8856
Marunouchi 1-5-1, Chiyoda-ku (across from Tokyo station, on the first floor of the Shinmaru Building), tel 3271-0786
Minami Aoyama 1-1-1, Minato-ku (first floor of the Aoyama Twin Building), tel 3475-1754
New York branch, tel (212) 861-1700
Paris branch, tel 01-42-60-13-00

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