After Japan’s rainy season’s humid heat is gone, the scorching sun dries out the ground and the hot summer descends on us. The other day I ducked into the air-conditioned basement food floor of a department store in order to get out of the midsummer heat, which came a bit early this year. I was lucky to find a number of refreshingly cool wagashi (Japanese sweets). “Kuzu-zakura” (a ball of sweet bean jam in clear sweet agar) and “Mizu-youkan” (soft azuki-bean jelly) looked refreshingly cool and translucent. The vividness of the colors in seasonal Japanese sweets styled to look like a hydrangea blossom is extraordinary for visitors to Japan, and fascinates even Japanese people. Today, PingMag introduces a variety of refreshingly sweet summer wagashi – just looking at the photos should cool you down – and also visits Usagiya in Ueno, Tokyo, where we learned exactly how to make “kuzu-zakura.”
Written by Ryoko
Translated by Rie Ishimi
“Seasonal Japanese sweets” are creative wagashi which express the colors and scents of each individual season. The coming of each new season is celebrated in Japan with special foods, drinks, festivals, and especially sweets. During the hot summer months, the sweet shop counters are lined with Japanese sweets containing natural ingredients like kanten (also known as agar, an all-natural plant-based jelly) or kuzu, both in vivid colors like blue and green. And they give us a pleasant, cooling sensation. Just look at the delightful creation below by Tsuruya-Yoshinobu. It is fashioned to look like a hydrangea, which blossoms during the rainy season, and you won’t find this sweet at any other time of year. Nerikiri (sweet, jellied adzuki-bean paste) was used to create the flower’s delicate petals.
The photos below show sweets fashioned to resemble nejibana and yamayuri (goldband lily) by Tsuruya Hachiman. Nejibana is a small flower, which is unique in that it grows up a double spiral with small white blossoms pointing off in all directions. The flower’s unique shape and delicacy are perfectly expressed with tiny white spots drawn on the top of the sweet. The sweet in the right image is a tribute to the yamayuri, a lily native to Japan. It is one of the largest varieties of lilies, and its broad leaves are so big they often fold back, which is what is represented here. These beautiful designs are pleasing to the eye and gently remind us of the season, and the delicate flavors are pleasing to the tongue as well.
“Nejibana” by Tsuruya Hachiman
“Yamayuri” by Tsuruya Hachiman
“Mitsumame-kan” by Hanazono Manju and mizuyoukan by Usagiya are made with kanten, which consists of Tengusa seaweed and leguminous arrowroot, and is similar to the texture of gelatin. The thing that is most striking about these transparent Japanese sweets, is what you can find suspended inside. One of the sweets by Seikan’in was poetically named “fresh-picked tomato in the morning,” and used sweet tomato paste to create a small cherry tomato (another sign of spring) inside arrowroot jelly.
A more traditional sweet from confectioner Usagiya.
A beautiful sweet with a beautiful name: “fresh-picked tomato in the morning” by Seikan’in.
“Mitsumame-kan” containing fruits and azuki beans by Hanazono Manju.
Another”hydrangea,” this one by Tsuruya Hachiman. Yellow bean jam is hidden inside!
Some other Japanese sweets deal with the subject of sentimental scenes, such as sunlight reflected on the water or fireworks in the night sky. Another fancifully named sweet is “wish on a star” by Tsuruya-Yoshinobu (below), which represents a shimmering clear summer night sky full of twinkling stars.
“Wish on a star” by Tsuruya-Yoshinobu, painted with small white flecks that resemble stars.
“Apricot” by Tsuruya Hachiman.
How are these Japanese sweets made? We visited Usagiya, a Japanese sweet shop in Ueno, Tokyo, where they kindly showed us how-to make “kuzu-zakura.”
The Japanese confectionery “Usagiya” was founded in 1913. 20-odd employees are working here, ranging from rookies who have just graduated from cooking school to veteran confectioners who have been working with sweets for many years. In the old days newcomers began apprenticeships from around the age of 15, and lived on the premises. Nowadays, most workers commute to work just like any office worker, but their passion for wagashi has remained unchanged.
65-year-old Veteran confectioner, Mr.Yamamoto is kneading dough for dumplings.
A young female confectioner is branding a logo onto dumplings.
Kuzu-zakura dough is made by mixing and heating powdered arrowroot and water. The crucial point here is to mix them quickly without overheating. If you overheat it, the arrowroot dough becomes too hard and could be easily broken. Also, quick mixing gives it translucence and gloss. Looking around the workshop makes the message clear: making wagashi needs a quick and skillful hand. Everyone looks completely devoted to their work.
The most most difficult part of making kuzu-zakura dough is using the appropriate mixing speed and adjusting the heat properly.
Skilled technician – dumplings are neatly place on a tray with astonishing speed.
The dough is quickly dipped in water. With very skillful technique, the confectioners beautifully wrap bean jam in a piece of soft arrowroot dough with amazing speed and precision. The technique for making kuzu-zakura at Usagiya has been handed down from generation to generation. They are renowned for producing a very thin layer of kuzu, which holds a perfectly formed ball of bean jam. Only the best azuki beans from Tokachi in Hokkaido are used for this bean jam – completely handmade on the premises to ensure maximum flavor. All of this work goes into creating a delicate sweet that has the translucence and beauty of a seashell.
After shaping the kuzu-zakura, the next step is to steam them. After steaming, they are cooled down to near room temperature. They are then gently washed with cold water to enhance their translucence, and left to rest for a while.
Tradition meets technology. This machine steams the dumplings, making them tender and chewy.
Speed is of the essence. Cold water is poured on the steamed dumplings so they keep their shape.
In the finishing touches, they wrap the cooled Kuzu-zakura with cherry blossom leaves. The finished product is beautiful. And the speed these confectioners work at is spectacular.
Don’t forget the garnish! Real cherry blossom leaves help create the illusion of a fresh cherry.
These beautiful sweets were also on the production line. What a wonderful shade of green!
Usagiya’s beautiful wrapping paper.
The paper bag that comes with your purchase is almost as cute as the sweets inside!
Are you ready to try refreshing summer wagashi? If you happen to be visiting Ueno, why don’t you try some Japanese sweets made by Usagiya’s master confectioners? Our last example shows another beautiful “hydrangea.”