Wagashi from Minamoto Kitchoan (Piccadilly, London)

I spent several hours at the weekend trying to get to grips with agar agar. I still see this as an ingredient with potential, but one that I am still unfamiliar with. I’m sure I will be posting something using it quite soon. I checked online for Asian recipes that use it, and this led me to Japanese Wagashi. This is traditional Japanese confectionery, and for me, what really stands out is not only how pretty these look, but also the different basis for making them – jelly, bean paste, rice…all very intriguing.

As a result of my various searches, I came across Minamoto Kitchoan in central London. I was heading to that part of town in any case to pick up a few new books, so I dropped in to check it out. Time to enter the world of Wagashi.

The shop is terribly cute – to my untrained eyes, it all looked very Japanese, with cases filled with all manner of exciting-looking treats, and even a small seating area if you want to buy something and have it straight away. I even heard that you can get a cup of green tea with your Wagashi fix. Being a more restrained type, I came away with a small selection, which I have tried to describe below.

I also want to share the little note that comes with the Wagashi: “Delicious Japanese sweets full of natural goodness. “Wagashi” contains red beans, kidney beans, glutinous rice, powdered rice, sweet potatoes, sesame, agar-agar and sugar. “Wagashi” is full of sun kissed goodness and high in plant protein. There is almost no animal fat, which makes it a wholesome, healthy product. Natural unrefined sugar is one of the most important ingredients in “Wagashi”. The sugar is not only sweet but it is made from pure carbohydrates and they are totally natural. Serving with a cup of hot green tea is the typical way to enjoy the perfect traditional complement to the sweetness of this confection, but you can also enjoy with non sugar English tea. Ah, not just sweets, but a health food! I put the kettle on, and got ready to try my exciting purchases.

Sakuranbo – Japanese cherry in a clear jelly. I loved this one, both how it looks and how it tasted. The cherry was pretty fresh (I was expecting some glacé effort) and the jelly was delicately flavoured. My ignorant palate said “plum wine” although I am sure this is more likely to be extract of cherry blossom. It was light, fragrant, fruity and fresh. Fantastic, and I would buy these again in a heartbeat (for example…this week!). I also understand why it is recommended to consume Wagashi with unsweetened tea – yes they are sweet, but not overly so, and a couple of spoonfuls of Tate & Lyle’s best could easily overpower the delicate flavour of the Wagashi.

Kurishigure – candied chestnut wrapped in soft bean paste. It was unusual, and it did take a moment to decide that I did like it. I think this is just because of how different Wagashi is compared to Western sweets, and I didn’t know what to expect from a bean-based sweet. The texture reminded me a little of marzipan, perhaps a marzipan made with hazelnut rather than almonds, and had a dry-ish, sandy texture. The lack of sugar was also apparent in the chestnut, which was lightly sweetened rather than candied (as we know them here). Overall, the lack of sweetness was nice, a very delicate sweetness and nice texture. I would take another box of these if someone is looking for a little gift idea…

Tsuya – sweet red  bean paste sandwiched between two sweet pancakes. This one…I did not really like. The cake is similar to British mini-pancakes, but it was the filling that I did not like. Sweet kidney beans (or so it seemed to me). This combination just didn’t do it for met. The “beany” taste was quite detectable. I was a little surprised, as the bean paste in the Kurishigure was really nice. I’m glad I tried this, but I don’t think I’ll be trying it again any time soon.

Beika Goma – black sesame rick crackers. OK, I concede that these are not Wagashi, but I love rice crackers and these looked so pretty. They tasted good too – tasty, with a little nuttiness from the sesame, and the typical great “savoury” taste with a touch of seaweed flavour. These are my new favourite rice crackers!

After writing all this, I recalled that I had actually had Wagashi before, but was not aware that there was a whole “world of Wagashi” out there. I received a gift of a box of chocolate Mochi one year at Christmas – chocolate in a soft, sweetened rice paste and rolled in chocolate (thanks Jazz!). They were very, very strange at first taste, but once my sense of taste had adjusted to the lack of sugar, I was happy to have them at a rate of one a day with cups of green tea.

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