While present-day Japan is full of European-influenced sweets like cakes, cookies and chocolate, traditional Japanese sweets, also known as “wagashi,” are naturally vegan. Typical wagashi ingredients include mochi (pounded rice), anko (sweet red bean paste) and various fruits. Chestnuts, sweet potato and pumpkin are also popular wagashi ingredients.
Wagashi can be found throughout Japan at family-run roadside stands, convenient stores, high-end markets, and cafés. Generally, the family-run shops and higher-end gourmet shops are the best places to find the freshest wagashi. In most cases, the wagashi is made the day-of and has a shelf-life of 1-2 days to ensure optimal freshness. When wagashi is purchased in a grocery store or convenience store, it’s very likely to contain added sugar or preservatives to lengthen its shelf-life. It’s quite common to enjoy wagashi alongside matcha tea. The subtle sweetness of the wagashi complements the bitterness of the matcha perfectly.
Here are a few of our favorite wagashi finds during our travels in Japan.
This traditional tea ceremony at the Himeji Castle Gardens had the most delicate cherry blossom (sakura) wagashi.
We had a chance to watch a family-run shop in Nara making matcha mochi from scratch. The mochi is coated with soy bean flour.
I especially enjoyed this afternoon snack of chestnut wagashi and tea in the mountain town of Koyasan.
We couldn’t resist this mitarashi dango! During the cherry blossom season, we stumbled upon a dango vendor while walking through one of Osaka’s most famous parks for “hamani” or “flower viewing.”
We loved trying different varieties of wagashi so much during our first trip to Japan that we decided we should learn how to make these delicate sweets from scratch. We reached out to Mari Nameshida, a culinary instructor in Tokyo and asked if she would be willing to offer a class on vegan Japanese sweets. She was more than happy to! We had a great group of folks from Australia, Russia and Malaysia.
In the course of a few hours, we learned how to make the following:
- Kurogoma Purin (black sesame seed pudding)
- Kabocha-Shiruko (pumpkin dumplings in sweet red bean soup)
- Shiratama (white dumplings) with Mitarashi (sweet soy sauce)
- Anko (sweet bean paste)
Mariko insisted on using the highest quality ingredients and as little sugar as possible to ensure that the core ingredients’ flavors wouldn’t be clouded by excess sweetness. The end result was perfection.
Starting on the left and working clockwise, we made kurogoma purin (black sesame seed pudding) with a dusting of matcha, shiratama (white dumplings) with mitarashi (sweet soy sauce), and kabocha-shiruko (pumpkin dumplings in sweet red bean soup).
Here is a better view of the shiratama with mitarashi.
With high quality ingredients and a bit of patience, these sweets are incredibly easy to make, but more importantly, with a few base components, you can mix and match, develop your own fillings and toppings, and customize your own wagashi. Mariko gave us a list of easy-to-find shops for the various ingredients needed to recreate these sweets back at home. Assuming we can get all of these ingredients through customs, we’re fully equipped to make own own wagashi as soon we’re back in our own kitchen! I can’t wait.