Wagashi: traditional Japanese confectionery

Two Saturdays ago, I attended a lecture and demonstration on the art of making wagashi or traditional Japanese desserts. Sponsored by the Japan Foundation, Manila (JFM) for the 2012 Nihongo Fiesta, the event brought three young Japanese pastry chefs from three respected and famous confectionery houses in Japan: Noriyuki Myojin, who belongs to Mitsuya-honpo in the Hiroshima Prefecture and known for its jonamagashi or unbaked sweets using seasonal motifs; Keisuke Yoshihashi, a third generation confectioner/owner of Yoshihashi Kashijo in the Ishikawa Prefecture and famed for traditional sweets used in tea ceremony; and Naoya Koizumi, heir to Koundo Honten in Tochigi Prefecture, a confectionery house known for its “Koin Monaka” or sandwich of anko bean paste and crispy sweet rice crackers.

The three young chefs were funny and engaging and my friend B even remarked that one of them should get his own TV show. They took turns to show how they make jonamagashi, dorayaki (two pancakes with azuki bean paste), the painstakingly elaborate hasamikiku (of course they made it look easy), and uchigashi, which is basically (very expensive wasanbon) sugar and water, kneaded and molded. Wagashi ingredients are primarily bean paste, sugar, and rice. Not a big fan of the first two, but oh-my-goodness, they turn out looking good. Almost too good to eat. Wagashi is typically served with tea so all the sweetness gets balanced by its bitter taste.

Feast your eyes on the wagashi below. Though they were taken on a camera phone, you can still see how detailed and beautiful these hand-made desserts are. 🙂

slouching somewhere

Hasamikiku is a confectionery based on the motif of a chrysanthemum (kiku)

slouching somewhere

slouching somewhere

Super sweet uchigashi and the wooden molds used to make them

Jonamagashi are individually made by hand using flowers, birds and other seasonal motifs

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My top 10 Japanese eats

One of our favorite activities in any trip is trying the local food. And Japan has obviously so much to offer. Beyond the freshest sushi, the yummy tempura, and the sublime box of mochi we brought home, here’s a roundup of our most memorable bites and meals in Tokyo and Kyoto.

10. Edamame and beer

10. I didn’t think I would like edamame (soybeans harvested at the peak of ripening), but these boiled (sometimes steamed) pods are soft, a little salty, and a really addictive snack with Japanese beer. Kampai!

9. Onigiri and other konbini delights

9. Lawson’s, Family Mart, 7-Eleven—the kobini or convenience stores in Japan abound and in its racks are the dependable (hey, you never know at what street corner you’re going to get hungry) and surprisingly tasty rice balls. Whenever P and I were in the mood to eat in our room or in the guesthouse, we would buy a stash of konbini goods—the rice balls, rice crackers, sandwiches and all sorts of beverages—and we were happy campers.

8. Tonyu or soy milk doughnuts at Nishiki Market

8. I first read about them in Kyotofoodie.com, which had me dreaming about them for a couple of months until we made our way to Nishiki Market in Kyoto. These tonyu or soy milk doughnuts (tofu doughnuts at the signboard) are crunchy, chewy, and just with a hint of sweetness. Best eaten when they have just rolled out of the hot oil. I love them to bits. So do a lot of people that there’s often a line to get a bag (starts at ¥250 for 10 pieces).

7. Matsuya's beef bowl

7. From our first day in Japan, we were pestering our friend C to take us to Yoshinoya, a gyudon-ya chain we were familiar with. He would always shake his head in disapproval. On our third day in Tokyo, right before we headed off to the Anime Fair, he took us to another gyudon (beef bowl) place. “This is better,” he assured us. It turned out to be Matsuya and its beef bowl (referred to as gyumeshi on its menu) was one satisfying meal. The beef and onions had just the right blend of sweet and salty and it was perfect on the bed of fluffy, hot rice. It is served with raw egg, which is typically beaten and mixed with the beef–I passed on that; I was happy putting a generous amount of beni shoga (pickled red ginger) and the red chili mix on my beef bowl.

6. Eringi mushroom

6. C took us to a number of restaurants he liked around Tokyo. One of which was to Bamboo, a restaurant, within walking distance from the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills. The sizzling plate of sautéed Eringi mushrooms in butter was the highlight of the dinner. Simple, succulent and rich. I know it doesn’t sound so Japanese, but how can you go wrong with butter?

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When you want some company (our last supper in Kyoto)

For our last dinner in Kyoto, P wanted to go back to this restaurant, which we saw the night before when we walked around Gion with Yashi and the other IchiEnSou guests. It was a restaurant serving a variation of okonomiyaki that had a humorous statue of a boy running with a bag of the restaurant’s specialty, while a dog chases him and tugs down his pants (see photo below).

An okonomiyaki is a Japanese pancake that roughly translates to “what you like” (okonomi) and “grilled” or “cooked”(yaki ). As such, it can contain a variety of seafood, meat, and different vegetables and cooked in a teppan or hot plate. In the Gion restaurant, the okonomiyaki it serves is called Issen Yoshoku (which is also the name of the restaurant)—yoshoku for ‘Western food’ (Western because the batter used is made of wheat flour) and sen because it used to cost about 1 US cent.

The eye-catching facade of Issen Yoshoku

The cooks hard at work. (See the mannequin on the left, it's a clue on what awaited us inside)

The cooks preparing the mounds of Issen Yoshoku face the street, which attracts many onlookers, most if not all of whom were tourists who had whipped out their cameras (just like us). The dish is more crepe than pancake and thinly sliced pork, tiny shrimps, a lot of chopped scallions, and egg are among the ingredients that get tossed in before it’s folded in half and served.

Intrigued, we went inside and were taken to a table where a female mannequin in a kimono was seated. Oh-kay. Looking around, most tables had kimono-clad female mannequins accompanying the diners. I had seen this type of restaurant (or it could have been this very restaurant) in a news segment on Japan years back. Seated mannequins on every table to keep diners company. (I researched about it later on in Kyotofoodie.com and found out it’s the humorous ploy of the owner to lure drunken men to the restaurant when they see the seeming abundance of attractive single women seated inside from the street.) Oh, Japan. How do you think of these things (and go about actually doing them)? 🙂

Issen Yoshoku's funny menu: Ta-daah! It only serves one dish! (Catch a glimpse of our lady companion at the top-left corner of the photo)

The crepe-like creation is served with lots of sweet okonomiyaki sauce and strips of nori

We ordered two beers and two Issen Yoshoku, one for me and P. (Our lady companion was not having anything. Cheap date.) I wasn’t too crazy about this okonomiyaki (just too many scallions for my taste), but my husband liked it and even finished my share. Still, it was a fun dining experience and if you’re in the Gion area, do go inside and buy your lady friend a drink.