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When invited to a Japanese tea ceremony, one of the most dazzling things to marvel at is the absolutely stunning sweets presented before the matcha is served. This portion of the ceremony is performed to prep the palate for the delicious yet potentially bitter few sips that follow. The sweetness delivers harmony on your palate to bring out the complex flavor profile in the matcha.
Wagashi is an entire world, vast and deep, of tantalizing Japanese confectionery which can be classified into three general categories based on the moisture content of each and then further broken down into subcategories.
There are literally thousands of kinds of wagashi and just as many masters creating these tantalizing edibles that represent purpose, poetry, and the passing seasons. You’ve no doubt seen these mesmerizing creations on Pinterest and Instagram: perfectly formed or rather sculpted, some reminiscent of marzipan, some crispy and casual, and almost always with a nod to the current season, a poem, nature, or celebration.
Most wagashi have just enough sweetness to dance on the palate without feeling like a sugar rush, as with most Japanese desserts. Sweet is a flavor that is appreciated in small doses in Japan and a little taste is all one needs. The Japanese are masters of eating just one truffle. Imagine that!
But what is Higashi?
Higashi is an art form of pressed dried confectionery. These vivid and pastel sweets fall into the wagashi category that has 10% or less moisture content in the world of Japanese confectionery. They are typically served in the summer tea ceremony, possibly along with another wagashi “cake”. But they are perfectly served with a cup of sencha or even coffee, at your kitchen table.
Made with just rice flour, sugar, and a touch of water, they have such a low moisture content, you might think you just bit into a stone! Never fear because a moment in your mouth and they begin to melt, revealing a gentle sweetness and almost powdery texture that coats your entire mouth. Because they have such a low moisture content, they are the longest lasting in the wagashi world, with a shelf life of about 3 months – but must be kept in a dry environment.
While higashi are served at the summer tea ceremony, they are also a wonderful after-dinner pleaser when you just need a little bit of something to round off your meal. They are not like candy in the west that you might toss in your handbag to suck while out and about. The key thing to remember is that higashi are not overly sweet and this is where some foreigners might be led astray.
Higashi are often made at home as a fun thing to do, in the same way that westerners might try their hand at making homemade donuts. A bit of an effort but well worth it! Let it be known, however, that revered wagashi masters dot the country from Hokkaido to Kyushu.
Wooden molds are used to make the handmade creations, and by using the very best confectionery sugar known as wasanbon in Japanese, finer lines and details are achieved. Think of Italian pasta ridges that are fine in detail. As with most things in Japan, wasanbon is, in and of itself, an art form.
Wasanbon has a history over 200 years deep. This special sugar is only produced in two regions in Japan: Tokushima Prefecture and Kagawa Prefecture. Using Chinese sugarcane, the process yields an umami-rich flavor that is highly regarded as the most sophisticated sugar in the confectionery world. With such high acclaim, it’s also hard to get – even in Japan. It is extremely fine grained to produce the delicate ridges and forms in higashi. Wasanbon is not just for higashi but is also used where a fine-grained sugar is required. It is this sugar that makes higashi melt in your mouth.
If you are in Japan and see higashi in the store, no doubt these beautiful designs will lure you into buying mode, especially since the boxes are just as exquisite. Drop me a comment if you’ve ever had the pleasure of trying these little gems!
Holly talks about wagashi more in: A Glimpse Into the Tea Ceremony: Chakai Versus Chaji
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