Winter delight is a Japanese piece of cakeTo culinary buffs, wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionary), is often dubbed “the poetry of food.”
It’s lustfully delicate, brimming with seasonal spirit.
To get a full sense of the arrival of spring in Japan, the locals take tea with a piece of sakura mochi, a pink rice cake with red bean filling wrapped in a cherry leaf, Japan’s signature wagashi dessert.
In the summer, the pieces come in the shape of peaches and sea waves; in the autumn they turn into maple leaf shapes, wheat, the moon and in the winter, cranes.
In Korea, wagashi is a popular gift for holidays and the New Year.
They fill food counters in the city’s major department stores with delicate shapes of winter fruit or flowers like persimmons and camellia seeds.
Originally, the taste of wagashi was dizzyingly sweet.
They are eaten with green tea to balance the flavor. But in Korea, taste has gotten more adventurous.
“The Japanese prefer it to be softer and sweeter,” says Jeon Jung-eop, the chef and owner of Inami, a local manufacturer of wagashi.
“In Korea, the sugar is toned down and the texture is chewier. We put in a lot more rice cake and less anko [red bean paste],” Jeon adds.
The most popular wagashi filling is azuki bean paste, but Westernized ingredients like custard, chocolate and even cheese are possible. The fillings are then wrapped in a layer of rice cake coated with sesame seeds and colorful gelatin.
Wagashi dates back to the Yayoi period about 2,200 years ago, when natural fruit was hard to preserve.
Sugar was introduced later when trade with Portugal and Spain opened up. The sugar allowed cooks, bakers and confectioners to preserve fruit and nuts longer and manufacture a sweeter product.
The culture of wagashi developed into a trend around the 17th century in Kyoto where a group of cultural elite and literati initiated a new lifestyle of drinking tea with wagashi.
In Korea, wagashi arrived during the colonial period. Japanese merchants set up new businesses here.
Park Gen Sung, one of the first pastry artists to bring wagashi to Korea, explains that the pieces now have gotten about 1.5 times smaller. He was the first Korean student in the Tokyo School of Pastry Art.
“They were sweeter and bigger, about the size of a fist when they first started out here,” Park recalls. “It was enough to fill the stomachs of hungry Koreans after the war.” The Korean War ended in 1953.
The most popular kinds of wagashi were manju, a flour or rice dough stuffed with bean paste; yokan, a thick tablet of jelly made of red bean paste, agar and sugar; and senbei, or rice cookies.
Then came Koreanized versions, such as walnut cakes, which are filled with red beans. These snacks are a trademark snack in Cheonan, South Chungcheong.
After Korea was liberated from Japan in 1945, locals began to produce the cake on their own, reaching a peak in the 1960s and 1970s, shortly before Western pastries rose in popularity. They recently came back into favor as an alternative snack for health-conscious consumers who prefer natural ingredients like beans and grains over sugary doughnuts.
Wagashi often draws on connections with nature like mountains, fruits and flowers.
Park, the veteran baker, invented about 150 designs during his career.
He is known for modifying the cake by adding Korean elements into the design and recipe.
Sochangsan are inspired by a small mountain near his home. He designed the surface of the cake with an imaginary landscape that evoked the Korean countryside. He mixed walnuts and pine nuts into a dough coated with egg yolk. When baked, the filling is molded into the shape of a chrysanthemum.
“Wagashi is different from Korean rice cakes,” says Lee Sang-hwa, the owner of Hwamiga, a company that imports the products from Japan.
“It’s not meant to be filling. You serve a small amount with tea as a treat for guests. Some Koreans think wagashi is too sweet and expensive, and they think it will be filling like a Korean rice cake.”
For Lee, the taste of wagashi is more than just flavor.
“It’s a food to be enjoyed with all five senses,” she said.
By Park Soo-mee Staff Writer [email@example.com]