Jan 23, 2008

Japanese tea sweets

One thing I love about Japanese tea, they always serve wagashi (general name for sweets). It is practically impossible to count how many different types of wagashi exist when you take into account the numerous recipes and ingredients. The main ingredients for wagashi are beans (Azuki beans, kidney beans, soy beans), grains (mochi-rice, rice flour, wheat), potatoes, sesame seeds, Kanten (a natural hardener) and sugar. No fat or oil is used to make wagashi. These confections run the gamut from frothy abstract shapes to exquisite works of art made to look like flowers, animals or seasonal shapes such as autumn maple leaves.

In Chanoyu, there are two kinds – well there are many different kinds. but two main categories of sweets, higashi or dry sweets, and omogashi the larger wet sweets. Generally speaking, higashi are for usucha or thin tea, and omogashi for koicha or thick tea. Omogashi usually have a poetic name, too – like hakubai (white plum blossoms) or Yamazato (mountain village).

In Japan, it is pretty easy to get sweets. There are shops that specialize in certain types of sweets, some are very famous. Sweets are made fresh daily at shops and we used to go just before closing to get the marked down leftovers.When I lived in Kyoto, one of my sempai and I would go around to the different sweet shops to sample the sweets. We made a map of the best shops in the city with notes on their particular specialty and which ones we liked the best. There is one that has a wagashi bar. It is like a sushi bar. The chef behind the bar will have a selection of seasonal sweets. When you choose one, he will make there in front of you and they will serve you a bowl of matcha. Heaven.

In America, it is more difficult to get sweets, though sometimes you can get them at Asian grocery stores and they tend not to be very fresh. I learned an easy to remember recipe for mochi and red bean paste sweets from my sensei that can be made with easily obtained ingredients.

Easy Daifukumochi tea sweets
Make a bean paste of red azuki beans, (kidney beans if not available). You can also buy sweet bean paste powder or red bean paste in a plastic bag if you can find it.

Soak beans overnight, and cook until very soft. Strain cooking water and beans through a mesh strainer into another bowl to eliminate bean skins. Throw skins away (or compost). Then strain the beans mush and water through a muslin cloth. Squeeze as much water out of the cloth as you can. Put the bean paste in a pan on the stove and add one third (in weight) sugar and cook over medium heat stirring it until the paste thickens. It will tend to get very thin and watery as the sugar melts, but then it will thicken up. When it is thick enough, the bean paste will stand and mound nicely and is not too sticky. Remove from heat and distribute in small mounds on a well wrung, lint-free towel to cool. Cover with towel so it will not dry out. This can also be double wrapped in plastic wrap and put in a zip lock and stored in the freezer up to 3 months. When cooled, form into 1 inch balls.

To make mochi covering, take one cup of mochiko flour (can be found in the Asian aisle of most supermarkets), one cup of sugar and one cup of water and mix together. (The proportion is important 1-1-1. You can make half a recipe, too). Put through a sieve to eliminate lumps. At this point you can add food coloring to suggest seasonal references (such as purble for iris). The secret to keeping the mochi soft is to add a tablespoon of karo light corn syrup. Mix well and microwave for 1 minute, take out and mix well. Microwave for 2 minutes, take out and stir to mix well. Microwave 2 more minutes and stir again. By now it should be getting clear and elastic. Make sure it is completely translucent by microwaving in 30 second increments. Turn out glob of mochi from the bowl onto a cookie sheet or pan sprinkled liberally with corn starch. Sprinkle corn starch on top to prevent sticking. Wait until cool enough to handle. Pinch off about a one inch ball of the mochi and flatten it in your hands. Be careful it will be hot. Put bean paste ball in center and pinch closed. Turn over and bush off excess cornstarch with soft brush. I put them into a paper muffin cup to keep them separate until I am ready to serve.

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