Wagashi Heaven in London: Minamoto Kitchoan
Was just chatting to my flatmate today about photographs, food, cameras and the tricky issue of the sodding thing putting (imaginary, I hope) pounds on us in every picture. When we started discussing my food pictures, what completely stumped us was how the food gets away with these very curious extra pounds. I don’t think my cakes look any more rotund or pneumatic. If I took a picture of a fairly large orange, it doesn’t look any fatter or rounder in the photograph. Why then do us, regular (as Gok Wan would say, REAL) women, after a quick but torturous snap, by some mysterious unfortunate force of technology look about 2 stone heavier, 10 inches rounder and just generally resembling an enormous juicy peach?
Very strange huh. But I suppose food just gets away with looking good. The damn thing simply looks even better on camera sometimes. They’re a natural. And so I warn you, this post is picture-heavy – for the reason that the sweets I eat look a helluva lot better than I do on camera. I totally took advantage of that.
I’m a big moaner. I moan about a lot of things. Apparently, my complaining is real hilarious too. Which is good, and sure, a bit of humour makes life so much more fun. Earlier this week I moaned about the lack of sugary things to eat in my house. And then when I went out to buy some from Minamoto Kitchoan, I moaned about the horror it presented to my thighs. On the way back home, some idiot kicked my bag of sweet treats and then of course, in the safety of my own head, I moaned about that as well. But, whilst I was eating it (after snapping like a gazillion shots), my generally grumpy alter ego went away. I was on cloud 9. Sweet treats surely brighten up anyone’s day but wagashi is just a little bit more special, in my opinion. In terms of eating it, it calls for a wholly different approach and definitely a mentally/emotionally/spiritually cleansed me devoid of any unhappy, grumpy thoughts!
Wagashi is traditional Japanese confectionary, beautifully crafted such that it has evolved into an artform of sorts, especially in Kyoto. I have always been fascinated with such confectionary. At first sight, they seem like some sort of posh nosh for imperial beings – they’re so wonderfully crafted it’s almost a travesty to think about eating it! But wagashi aren’t just eye-candy. They’re not the bimbos of sweet treats. They’re the Lady Diana of it all – gorgeous, elegant with real substance. And substance that’s all natural, non-toxic and made from plant-based ingredients such as adzuki, chestnuts and grains, seldom incorporating ingredients alien to Japanese cuisine. Typically served with tea, wagashi reminds me of the very Chinese art of consuming small light sweets with tea after a meal to improve digestion, nutrition and blood circulation; what also comes to mind is the tradition of eating mooncakes with tea during the Mid-Autumn Festival often whilst admiring the moon and the harmony of natural beauty about us.
Both calls one to indulge in all 5 senses to fully appreciate it through taste, sight, sound, touch and smell. You can savour to the fullest the flavours of the wagashi’s natural ingredients without complicating or corrupting alien flavours; the designs of wagashi are inspired by the aesthetics of nature such as the seasons or traditional Japanese art and literature and this often means you get an enormous variety of wagashi in different shapes, colours and even patterns. Also, the packaging is phenomenal. Every single wagashi is given utmost attention to detail, individually wrapped and then wrapped in boxes. Every bit is a beautiful bit of love, care and gentle sweetness; one of wagashi’s really unique appeal is the names – most of them associated with a seasonal object or phenomenon like haiku poems or alluding to a famous poetic phrase or literature; wagashi is eaten using the hands as touch is important in fully appreciating the soft, crisp or smooth textures which invite a whole new experience once you put it in your mouth; the scents of wagashi is very delicate. Although subtle, if you are patient you can quite easily identify what’s in it since only natural ingredients are used. Not overpowering and paired with equally delicate teas, (wagashi has been developed together with Japanese tea ceremony) the whole process of appreciating and consuming wagashi is the most calming experience I’ve had. I sometimes feel like I should feel a little more enlightened after – at least that’s what my Dad used to hint at after we sat about eating sweets, drinking tea, looking at the moon and our koi fishes.
At the very least, wagashi is certainly a celebration and enjoyment of simple and natural beauty at its purest. And like the gentle lapping of soft evening waves on the shore, the warm caress of a summer breeze upon your cheek, the art of wagashi is harmonious, beautiful, sublime, inspiring and almost hauntingly so.
There are 3 categories of wagashi based on moisture levels: 1) namagashi (wet confectionary) having moisture level of 30% or more; 2) han namagashi (half wet confectionary) where moisture level is 10-30% and 3) higashi (dry confectionary) with moisture level of 10% or less. I wasn’t too sure exactly which wagashi fit into which category but I tried to get a range that spread itself out over the categories.
I admit I haven’t tried all the different types of wagashi available. But within my eating repertoire, personal traditional favourites of mine have got to be daifuku, odango (small mochi balls skewered on a stick) and warabimochi (mochi traditionally made from fiddleheads [warabi] covered in kinako [soybean powder], sometimes in matcha or cocoa powder), oshiruko (hot liquid anko, rather soup-like, with small balls of mochi) and yokan (bean jelly solidified with agar). It’s always hard to really say which one I like best as they’re all so lovely in their own ways. Because there’s such a big range of wagashi, there’s always one to suit your mood too.
Note: Wagashi has almost NO ANIMAL FAT. Natural unrefined sugar is used. In terms of nutrition, wagashi is pure carbohydrates and plant protein. Awesome.
It was very difficult to choose what to get at Minamoto Kitchoan and even harder to keep myself within my budget. But here’s what I bought (I’ll let the pictures do the talking from here) :
Miyabiguruma 雅車 (Red Bean Cake with Chestnut Filling) – I’m not too familiar with this one but I think the name refers to gosho-guruma, the wheel of an imperial wheelcart of the Heian period which is a popular design on kimono as well. Hence, the pressed design onto the cake. Of a very lovely, fairy-dust crumbly texture, the sweetness is so subtle such that it doesn’t outshine the chestnut filling. It’s strange to think this cake holds up so well as a shaped wheel when it melts on your tongue almost immediately. This is a type of higashi, or dry confectionary, as it has a moisture level of 10% or less. Made of rakugan – rice flour and sugar (wasanbon being the finest Japanese premium sugar) – the texture is very light and powdery.
Kurimanjyu 栗鏝頭 (Candied Chestnut & Bean Cake) – manju are steamed cakes filled with sweet bean paste surrounded by a flour mixture, available in many shapes such as peaches, rabbits, and matsutake mushrooms. Steamed manju is influenced by the steamed Chinese mantou. Kuri manju, however, is baked rather than steamed. Chinese mooncakes will most resemble this I reckon as the doughy outer texture is soft and cake-like which has browned in the oven. Why it’s called kuri manjyu I believe is due to its aesthetic resemblance to the chestnut or ‘kuri’ and this is actually filled with chestnut paste or ‘kuri an’ rather that sweet adzuki bean paste.
Mamedaifuku 豆大福 (Mixed Bean Mochi with Anko Filling) – mochi with whole red or black beans surrounding a sweet adzuki bean filling and coated with potato starch. This is definitely my favourite out of my haul. I love anything sticky and chewy so mochi (and all its related types like dango) is my best loved type of sweet. Absolutely love the light sweetness of the outer mochi which is very stretchy and soft, indicative of the quality. I found the anko filling a little too sweet but that didn’t really bother me. Would have loved to have more whole beans in the mochi itself like I’ve seen from other mamedaifukus which are quite bumpy from the beans.
Ofukuimo お馥芋 (Sweet Potato Paste Cake) – a very dense cake made of sweet potatoes. This is commonly described as a sponge cake with a sweet potato paste filling which threw me a little because this was completely different. I could definitely taste the sweet potato in this but it was so dense, I would hardly call this a sponge cake. I loved seeing bits of sweet potato in cake which was very paste-like. Despite how dense and compact this was (into a little pink cup), it didn’t leave me feeling full-up or sick. I loved how pressing it between my tongue and roof of my mouth turned the cake almost cream-like. I know I’m not describing this well but gosh it was good, guys.
Have the pictures said it all? I hope so because recalling the exquisite tastes of these refined sweets have rendered me at a loss for words.
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