The Delightful World of Traditional and Modern Japanese Desserts

by Bokksu Staff

Despite having less than 10% of China’s population, Japan boasts a much larger confectionery market. That is because Japanese desserts have deep roots in the country’s traditions and culture—roots that have extended into modern times. The traditional methods for making these desserts remain largely unchanged, but there’s been a fusion of innovative ingredients and flavors.

There’s also the use of seasonal ingredients in making limited-edition Japanese confection. A good example is sweet potato paste made from Naruto Kintoki. They are perfect sweets only in the autumn, when the potatoes have just been harvested. Otherwise, they will become too moist and ruin the dessert’s taste and aesthetic appeal.

But what drives these innovations in Japanese desserts? A big factor is the need for dessert makers to appeal to a global audience as the popularity of these treats soars across borders. In this post, we’ll take you on a journey through the realm of authentic Japanese goodies. You’ll learn how much has changed over the decades and how much remains the same!

Authentic Japanese Desserts: A Taste of Japan's Culinary Heritage

Japanese dessert

Japan has always had a unique perspective on desserts. This is because they started making them long before sugar became widely available in the country. The result is that, unlike other countries that rely on sugar to sweeten desserts, Japan has always made their desserts with naturally sweet ingredients, such as rice, beans, and potatoes.

Perhaps nothing embodies the spirit of the most popular Japanese desserts like wagashi. For a while, it was considered a broad term for authentic Japanese sweets as a way to differentiate them from foreign sweets. The ancient Japanese would eat wagashi with ceremonial tea, especially matcha (green tea). They were handcrafted, delicious works of art that were valued not only for their taste but also for their looks. These sweets infused the occasion with life.

Today, wagashi remains an integral part of Japanese tea ceremonies and festivals, but it has other uses. You’ll find people enjoying them as snacks or giving them out as souvenirs. There are hundreds of other popular desserts from Japan, many of them originating from eras as far back as the Edo period.

The Irresistible Charm of Delicious Japanese Desserts

With a strong focus on using seasonal ingredients, different regions in ancient Japan made treats from the immediate resources available to them. The result was a wide variety of unique Japanese desserts. Even though they were developed in various regions, these foods were made with similar principles. One of the most common characteristics of a Japanese dessert is its subtle sweetness; most recipes will not overwhelm you with the taste of sugar. Another characteristic is that many of the desserts share similar ingredients. Let’s look at some of the common ingredients used to make Japanese desserts:

  • Matcha: This is green tea powder. Although it originated in China, Japan produces most of the world’s matcha. It’s used to add a subtle earthy taste to desserts like green tea mochi, wagashi, kakigori (a Japanese shaved ice dessert), and green tea ice cream.

  • Mochigome: It’s also called glutinous rice or sticky rice. This ingredient is rich in starch and sweeter than regular rice. It’s also used in making mochi and sekihan.

  • Yuzu: It’s a type of citrus fruit. The ancient Japanese used it to add flavor to various cuisines.

  • Sakura: Another name for it is cherry blossom, and it has aromatic properties. The leaves can be used to wrap treats and improve their aroma.

  • Sweet potato: Although you can eat these as stand-alone snacks, they are also useful in making taiyaki, daigaku imo, and other desserts.

  • Gelatine: This is a food ingredient with no color or flavor. However, it is useful when making fruit jelly and coffee jelly.

  • Azuki bean: Also known as red bean, azuki beans are boiled with sugar to create sweet red bean paste.

Sweet Red Bean Paste: The Heart of Many Japanese Sweets

Taiyaki fish-shaped cake with red bean paste

Red bean paste (anko) is a sweetened paste commonly used in traditional Japanese and Chinese desserts. It’s made of red azuki beans, sugar, and fat. The combination forms a sweet, reddish paste that is used as filling in popular desserts, such as taiyaki, sakuramochi, anko dango, dorayaki, and yokan.

The flavor and texture of these desserts depend on the preparation methods of the paste used.

Types of Sweet Red Bean Paste

Below are the common types of anko in Japan:

  • Tsubuan: The red beans are boiled as a whole with sugar. They don’t undergo any post-boiling treatment. This creates a chunky paste that’s perfect for filling desserts like dorayaki and taiyaki.

  • Koshian: This is the most popular type in Japan. It’s similar to Tsubuan, but with a slight difference: after boiling, the skins are removed by passing the beans through a sieve. The resulting paste is smooth.

  • Ogura-an: The ogura-an is made by mixing pre-made tsubuan and Koshian paste and then cooking the mixture in syrup.

  • Tsubushian: This requires mashing the azuli beans after boiling. The skins remain intact before mashing, creating a texture that’s not as fine as Koshian but also not as chunky as Tsubuan.

  • Sarashian: The preparation starts by drying the azuki beans. They are restored to their original state by adding water.

Traditional Japanese Desserts: A Journey Through Time-Honored Flavors

Sakuramochi and hanami dango

We need to talk about classic, traditional Japanese dessert recipes that have been passed down through generations. These are timeless cuisines that you can still find in modern times if you know where to look.

Yokan: Japanese yokan consists of agar (red algae jelly) and red or white bean paste (anko or shiroan). It is one of the many types of wagashi served with green tea. Later in this post, we’ll reveal more about wagashi, the classic Japanese sweet.

Dango: This is a kind of rice dumpling. The Japanese tend to serve it on a stick. You can enjoy dango with toppings or toasted over an open flame. Anko dango is the variant with red bean paste as the topping.

Sakuramochi: Flavored with cherry blossoms, this is a popular type of mochi. It consists of a sweet red bean filling wrapped in sakura leaf to give it a sumptuous aroma and taste. Sakuramochi from Tokyo tends to be smooth, while those from Osaka are mostly chunky.

Manju: Typically a sweet bread-like bun, manju originated in China. It has one of the oldest Japanese dessert recipes, having entered the country in 1341. In most cases, the bun is filled with sweet bean paste or sweet potatoes and has a wonderful sticky consistency.

Taiyaki: Pancake batter and anko fillings combine to form one of Japan’s most popular street foods. Cheese, custard, gyoza, chocolate, and Japanese sweet potatoes are also possible options for making fillings for taiyaki. It’s a cake shaped like a fish, and it tastes even better with some green tea.

Celebrating Traditional Japanese Sweets: A Cultural Experience

Traditional Japanese dessert

Earlier, we promised to provide more insights into traditional sweets from Japan, popularly called wagashi. There may be dozens of different types of wagashi, but most of them combine anko, shiroan, sugar, and rice flour. These sweets have played a huge role in Japanese history.

Religious Offerings: When wagashi were first invented, they were used as offerings to religious deities and ancestral spirits.

Served at Tea Ceremonies: Between the 14th and 15th centuries, tea ceremonies became popular among the Japanese elites. The tea at that time was very bitter. With little to no available sugar, they would serve sweets during these ceremonies. The introduction of matcha on these occasions only boosted the popularity of wagashi.

Role in Seasonal Festivals: Every year, confectionery makers create wagashi to celebrate seasonal festivals. The shapes and colors of the sweets reflect the theme of the festival. A good example is the hanami dango, which is served at spring flower viewing parties. The pink and white rice balls signify good luck, and the green balls are believed to prevent evil.

The Versatile Sweet Potatoes in Japanese Confectionery

Japanese candied sweet potatoes

People in other countries see sweet potatoes as simply vegetable snacks. But in Japan, they’re the bedrock of sumptuous desserts like daigaku imo (made with candied sweet potatoes), manju, daifuku, and taiyaki. The sweet potato’s role in these desserts is as a healthy, delicious filling, especially in autumn when the vegetable is in season. Unsurprisingly, the world tends to underestimate the positive impact of sweet potatoes on human health. They help to boost the immune system and facilitate a healthy gut. There have been studies that suggest that sweet potatoes help prevent some types of cancer.

Green Tea Cookies: A Modern Twist on Japanese Flavors

Matcha cookies

Remember matcha—that green tea powder that mellows the taste of Japanese desserts?  It’s considered an indigenous ingredient, yet it epitomizes how the fusion of traditional Japanese flavors with modern dessert forms has not only been possible but also successful.

Matcha, or green tea cookies, have taken the world by storm. These chewy baked foods use matcha powder as a key ingredient in homemade white chocolate chips, shortbread, and sugar cookies. Their mellow, earthy taste and crisp, buttery texture have made them popular within and outside Japan. Besides cookies, matcha powder is also a popular ingredient in other typically western desserts, such as cheesecake. You can also use it to make Japanese cake and Japanese pancakes.

Japanese Cheesecake: A Light and Fluffy Delight

Japanese cheesecake

Whatever your perception is about how cheesecake should taste, it may change when you get a taste of the Japanese cheesecake recipe. It's not as sweet as Western cheesecakes, but it has a lighter and airier texture. The cake is made of butter, sugar, cream cheese, eggs, and flour. Some recipes also include corn starch and toppings of strawberries, honey, matcha, fluffy whipped cream, or fruits. People all around the world love Japanese cheesecake because of its fluffy texture and delicious taste. It also contains fewer calories, making it a healthier choice.

Mochi: The Soft and Chewy Staple of Japanese Desserts

Japanese mochi

The Japanese rice cake, mochi, has been around since the 6th century. The process of making mochi, a ritual ceremony called mochitsuki, involves pounding mochigome with a wooden mallet. These days, there are more efficient mochi-making methods thanks to modern technology. Like wagashi, these balls of sweet rice have immense traditional significance. Associated with good fortune, they serve as both decoration and food for seasonal festivals like New Year's Day, Children’s Day, and Hinamatsuri (Girls' Day).

Kagami Biraki is a ritual that relies on a New Year decoration called kagami mochi. On the 28th of December, Japanese households place the kagami mochi on the family altar. Daifuku mochi is another popular variation of the treat. It consists of sticky mochi dough encasing a tasty filling. Mochi ice cream is considered daifuku. Other mochi variants include kakimochi, kinako mochi, ozoni, sakuramochi, and yakimochi.

Japanese Pudding: A Silky-Smooth Culinary Creation

Japanese pudding

Japanese-style custard pudding is called purin, and it’s easy to make using affordable ingredients like eggs, sugar, and milk. The topping is usually caramel sauce. Japanese pudding is closer in texture to Western flan or crème caramel than it is to other Western-style puddings, and people enjoy it after meals or during tea ceremonies. It’s best served cold, making it an ideal dessert for the summer.

Bokksu: Your Monthly Gateway to Authentic Japanese Desserts

Bokksu Snack Box snacks

At Bokksu, we believe you should have easy access to authentic Japanese desserts, no matter where you are. A Bokksu Snack Box Subscription is the most convenient way to explore Japanese desserts and teas from the comfort of your home. We source premium, rare snacks, teas, desserts, and candies from century-old family businesses in Japan and bring them to your doorstep every month. From mochi cakes to matcha cookies, you’ll get a healthy mix of authentic flavors to satisfy your desire for tasty Japanese desserts and more!

Each mystery box of delight comes with 20–22 premium Japanese snacks and a 24-page magazine with detailed information about the products and their origins. Your subscription entitles you to exclusive access to limited-edition snacks. Plus, you don’t have to spend a dime on shipping, even though the boxes come to you directly from Japan. We offer free worldwide shipping! Experience different regional specialties and seasonal flavors every month as we consistently bring you new tea, desserts, and treats.

Do you know a special person in your life with an interest in Japanese cuisine and culture? A Bokksu Snack Box subscription is the perfect gift for them in any season.

Embark on a monthly culinary adventure with Bokksu. Subscribe now and start your journey!

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