Traditional Japanese culture is very attached to respect for Nature and the unfolding of the seasons. It would be inconceivable here to wear a kimono with a snow motif in the middle of summer. Gastronomy also adapts throughout the year to the resources that Nature offers it. At least that was the case for a long time, before industrial processes filled store shelves with prefabricated products all year round. One of the delicacies that still resists this overwhelming machine is wagashi, a traditional Japanese pastry. And because we are greedy, we invite you to (re) discover them together according to the seasons.
The “Hanabira-mochi” is the wagashi which corresponds to the month of January. A month devoted to New Year’s ceremonies which the Japanese go to attend in temples, shrines and polite visits to friends and family. “Hanabira-mochi” means flower petal mochi, the rice dough (mochi) forms a circle that is folded into a semicircle with red bean paste (anko) inside and a thin branch of burdock protruding at the ends. Hanabira-mochi is used during the New Year’s tea ceremony.
For February, Uguisu-mochi is a must. Its name means “Japanese nightingale mochi” a bird that returns with spring. We make the Uguisu-mochi to go admire these birds and therefore watch for the return of sunny days. This anko-filled mochi is sprinkled with green kinako (grilled green soybean powder) in reference to the plumage of this nightingale. And no, it’s not matcha!
The weather warms up a bit in March and the coming of the cherry blossoms is approaching. To wait while waiting for flowering, we eat the Sakura-mochi (桜 餅) whose name speaks for itself! This is a mochi rose stained with anko filling wrapped in cherry leaf (of the Oshima-zakura variety) edible. The type of mochi changes depending on whether you are in Kanto or Kansai. Delicious and sweet and savory, this is without a doubt our favorite!
Spring is finally coming and with it milder temperatures. LThe cherry trees are in bloom and it’s time to enjoy the hanami! It is therefore logical that we consume “Ohanami dango” (花 よ り 団 子). The dango is a skewer of three balls of rice flour, there are many varieties depending on the season or region. For the hanami, one dumpling is colored pink (with sakura), another in green (matcha flavor) with the one in the middle which is left white.
An important holiday marks this month, the Kodomo no hi, the children’s day. The wagashi associated with it happens to be the ” Kashiwa-mochi ”from Tokyo : a mochi stuffed with anko and rolled in an oak leaf that symbolizes prosperity and the wish that parents should not die before the birth of children.
The “Minazuki “is a sweetness that we consume in particular on June 30, or exactly in the middle of the year as part of a summer purification ritual called “Nagoshiharae” dating from the Heian era (794-1185): we eat the Minazuki for get rid of sins and bad luck accumulated during the first six months and to ask for peace and luck for the rest of the year. The Nagoshiharae ritual is also believed to bring longevity to those who follow it. The Minazuki is made up of two triangular layers of rice jelly which gives it a refreshing appearance reminiscent of ice, as June marks the rainy season in Japan and a rise in temperature due to the humidity in the air. The top layer is sprinkled with beans “Azuki” to which we lend the ability to repel evil.
In the heart of summer the matsuri are in full swing in often stifling heat which can easily exceed 30 ° C. Suddenly, to recall a little freshness of spring, we consume the “Wakayu”, a wagashi in the shape of Ayu, a fish made from “gyuhi”, a rice flour similar to mochi.
The suffocating heat of August has nothing to envy that of July. The gelatinous aspect of “Mizu Manju” (水 ま ん じ ゅ う) or “the water cake” that we taste exclusively in summer also brings a feeling of freshness. Its translucent paste is made from a starch powder extracted from a plant called “kudzu” and contains a heart of red bean paste.
September marks the transition between summer and fall. To prepare for the arrival of a cooler season, we eat “Kuri Manju” (栗 ま ん じ ゅ う) whose the chestnut shape already calls for autumn.
As announced in September chestnuts are the scent of autumn. We therefore naturally find some in this month’s wagashi, the “Kuri Mushi Yokan” (栗 羊羹): a jellied red bean paste stuffed with chestnuts.
In spring, Japanese people admire cherry blossoms, and in autumn they naturally look to maple trees with glowing leaves which will soon fall. It is logical that the chestnut mochi are shaped like a maple leaf (紅葉 の 生 菓子).
In December, it was a long tradition to eat a maruyubeshi made from yuzu flesh. But with Western influence, the Christmas period saw the birth of festive wagashi of all shapes and colors (ク リ ス マ ス の 和 菓子). A paradox that the Japanese are very well suited to.
Of course, today there is a plethora of wagashi one of a kind. Each Japanese pastry chef will be inventive in designing creations that are both sumptuous for the mouth and for the eyes. We can quote for example Junichi Mitsubori, whose edible works are real aesthetic feats (photo below) without forgetting Hiroyuki Sanno to whom we have already dedicated an article. Others, on the contrary, promote minimalism and wagashi in its raw and primitive form in order to preserve tradition and respect for the seasons. One thing is certain, there really is something for everyone!
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