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Traditional ingredients in Japanese sweets
Before we get into specific treats, here are some of the key ingredients and flavours you’re likely to come across in traditional Japanese sweets:
- Matcha: green tea powder
- Anko: red bean paste (koshian: smooth or tsubuan: chunky)
- Shiroan: white bean paste, made from white lima beans or butter beans.
- Sesame powder,
- Kinako: roasted soybean flour
- Chestnuts in autumn,
- Sweet potato,
- Flowers (sakura, ume etc),
- Fruit (persimmons, figs).
Popular traditional Japanese sweets
Mochi is one of the best known Japanese sweets. Made from steamed and pounded rice, you’ll come across both savoury and sweet versions. Savoury mochi is often grilled and slathered in a delicious tare (sauce) and also eaten at New Year in ozoni soup. When it comes to sweet mochi, there is a wide variety to choose from, some of which are seasonal (like sakura mochi). Here’s how it’s made:
Ichigo Daifuku are one of my favourite kinds; they look like a giant ball of mochi, but inside is a whole strawberry and some bean paste. Juicy, beany, delicious.
Dango are similar to mochi, but are made by adding water to dry rice flour. The mixture is then shaped into balls which are boiled, skewered and grilled. These, too, come in a variety of flavours. They could be rolled in kinako powder, slathered in red bean paste or even seaweed. Below are the kusa dango I tried in Shibamata which are made from yomogi (mugwort).
One of the most iconic dango, with their very own emoji 🍡 are the Sanshoku Dango (Three Colour Dango) or Hanami Dango. These are available year-round but ubiquitous in spring!
This frozen dessert, amazingly, dates all the way back to the Heian Period (794-1185). In those days, ice was harvested and stored in caves and ice houses until summertime when the elite would get to enjoy a nice mound of shaved ice topped with fruits and syrups. These days, kakigori are available to all. You can find them at festivals and at the baseball, looking more like a snowcone doused in sugar syrup.
But the best way to try them is at a kakigori specialty restaurant. Some places, particularly the ones that use natural ice (made from spring water), are ridiculously popular in summer and will have long lines out front.
Classic toppings include matcha, anko and kuromitsu (sugar syrup). But if you’re looking for a more modern experience, you could expect caramel, condensed milk, melon balls, gold leaf or even a kakigori shaped like an animal face.
This dessert is said to have originated in around 1930, though I first heard of it on the wonderfully bizarre Netflix Show “Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman.”
It’s essentially a bowl dessert featuring a mix of agar jelly, anko, boiled beans, mochi and fruit. Lastly, a sweet syrup (mitsu) is poured over the top to complete the dish.
Wagashi are the most artistic sweets on the traditional Japanese dessert scene. They could be made from anything, like rice flour, mochi, sugar, azuki beans, Japanese agar, sesame paste and chestnuts. Wagashi typically mirror the seasons and are served in tea houses to counteract the bitter taste of matcha.
Manju is said to have been derived from a Chinese recipe; the batter is a combination of flour, rice powder and buckwheat flour. What makes them special, though, are the fillings. Anko is the most common filling, however, these days you can find all kinds of options from pumpkin to chocolate custard.
These are similar to manju, but the batter is more pancakey. They typically look like two small pancakes with a blob of azuki red bean in between. They are the favourite dessert of anime character Doraemon.
Taiyaki are another classic dessert. Originating in the early 1900s, these are similar to manju and dorayaki in terms of flavour but are much bigger and typically shaped like a fish. The name literally means ‘baked sea bream’, but this refers only to the likeness rather than ingredients. The typical filling is—you guessed it—azuki red bean. However, there are more accessible flavours like custard, chocolate and even ham and cheese.
Modern Japanese sweets:
Modern Japanese sweets are perhaps a little more familiar and accessible to travellers. For example:
- Chocolate (Chokore-to, or チョコレート)
- Pudding (Purin)
- Ice cream (aisu kuri-mu or soft cream)
- Sweet breads (pan), for example, melon pan
- Cake (ke-ki), like Mont Blanc or strawberry short cake
- Bubble tea
- Jiggly pancakes
- Coffee Jelly (ko-hi zeri) – more of an old school mid-century treat
- At festivals, you see frozen bananas dipped in chocolate (pink, blue etc)
Tokyo spots for sweet tooths
Traditional sweets are best enjoyed in a ‘shitamachi neighbourhood’ (traditional downtown neighbourhood) or even a tea house. Read about my day in Shibamata here.
Asakusa’s Sensoji Temple is a great place to sample dorayaki and agemanju (fried manju, almost like a donut).
For Showa era sweets, think mid-century, look for an all you can eat candy bar (dagashi bar 駄菓子バー) which are styled in Showa era decor.
For everyday treats, convenience stores offer a wide variety. You could also go to somewhere like Don Quijote for souvenir boxes and unique flavoured Kit Kats. If you’re looking for something a little fancier, try a ‘depachika’ food hall underneath a department store.
Helpful words about Japanese sweets
- Okashi – candy
- Sui-tsu – sweets
- Deza-to – dessert
- Oishii – delicious
- Amai – sweet
- Fuwa fuwa – fluffy
- Yawarakai – soft (ie. pudding, ice cream, bread)
- Shittori – moist (ie. cake)
- Nameraka – smooth (ie. yoghurt, whipped cream, ice cream)
What are your favourite Japanese sweets? Share below in the comments!