I have heard it said that one cannot truly experience the traditions and culture of another country until they try the cuisine. Since I have been focusing on Japan recently, I thought it would be advantageous to delve into Japanese cuisine, in an effort to wet your appetites a little prior to your travels to this magnificent country. Some people like to start with dessert before proceeding to dinner, so let’s not leave the best for the last. Let’s just jump right in!
In Japan the word for sweets, okashi (お菓子), originally referred to simple fruits and nuts. It wasn’t until China acquired the knowledge from India on how to produce sugar and began trading it with Japan, that sugar became a common ingredient. This along with the popularity of tea led to the creation of wagashi (和菓子) a traditional Japanese confectionery often created in the shape of leaves, flowers, and other items in nature and served with tea. Wagashi represents Japan’s four seasons and is designed to appeal to all five senses.
Today, Japanese sweets come in many forms including taiyaki, dango, cakes, crepes, donuts, ice cream, pudding and sweet breads all with a unique Japanese style and flavor. Modern Japanese sweets have a light, delicate texture and are not overpoweringly sweet as some of our Western desserts have a tendency to be. Oftentimes, fresh fruit and whipped cream are utilized to create these desserts where the traditional wagashi relies on mochi and read bean paste.
Strolling through the various cake shops in Japan or “keekiya-sans” as they are called, I couldn’t help but notice how the cakes were so beautifully and artfully displayed in special cases, most cakes being sold by individual slices rather than as an entire cake. These keekiya-sans can be found all over Japan including train stations, food courts of various major department stores as well as up and down countless streets.
In Japan, it is a tradition to eat cake on Christmas. Typically, these cakes are strawberry shortcakes with white whipped cream frosting with mouthwatering strawberries which represent traditional Christmas colors.
Japan is also home to countless charming bread shops or “panya-sans.” These too can be found just about everywhere and they serve sweet breads, some of which are formed into shapes of animals or other “kawaii” cute characters targeting children. These shops are very popular and always crowded.
It didn’t surprise me to learn that Japanese people have a sweet tooth and they love donuts! Mister Donut is ubiquitous in Japan and Krispy Kreme’s Shinjiku shop is very popular. Dunkin Donuts, although not as popular as Mister Donut also has a presence.
Let’s not forget Japanese “softo cream” or soft serve ice cream. Although milk and dairy products are not originally part of the traditional Japanese diet, today ice cream is a popular treat in Japan. Japanese ice cream treats include uniquely flavored gelato, smooth and delicious soft serve ice cream, mochi ice cream, and many other creative ice cream varieties. Soft serve can come in so many flavors including wasabi, beni imo (red potato), and goma (sesame seed), my personal favorite. Of course, vanilla, chocolate and strawberry flavors are also available for the less adventurous!
The Japanese are very influenced and receptive to Western culture and this is especially evident when it comes to French cooking and desserts. And when it comes to the crepe, Japanese love this traditional French dessert. There are many crepe shops and stands all over Japan serving up an amazing variety of sinfully sweet and fruity flavor combinations. Sometimes the crepes are cooked right in front of the customers.
So there you have it. A brief look into Japanese sweets and desserts. I hope I have sparked your curiosity and that you will want to give these treats a try when you visit Japan or even if you can find a Japanese sweets shop in your own area!