Japan is known for its unique culture, continuing traditions such as festivals, spiritual beliefs and cuisine as well as advancing to be one of the world’s leading economies. Japan attracted almost 20 million tourists in 2016, who visited to sample the Japanese way of life, which remains culturally unique and fascinating for foreigners.
Japanese food is often very different from western food. This article introduces several kinds of Japanese sweets, snacks, and desserts, that are a must-try if you visit the land of the rising sun.
Taiyaki, literally meaning ‘baked sea bream’, is a pastry-like cake baked in the shape of a fish. They’re often sold fresh on street corners in Japan at around 100-200 yen and are a delicious hot snack for winter. The most traditional filling is red bean paste, which is a common filling or additive to many Japanese desserts, and is made from sweetened azuki beans. Other fillings and flavors are also sold, such as chocolate, green tea, and custard. Savoury taiyaki is also available, with fillings such as cheese and sweet potato. They’re delicious on a cold day.
Nama-yatsuhashi is mainly sold as a souvenir sweet in places like Kyoto and the surrounding areas. These soft, bite-sized treats are made of rice, flour and cinnamon and filled with a sweetener. They usually come in a gift box, and free samples are available at some market streets in tourist areas. Some of the flavours include chocolate, red bean, strawberry and green tea. A yummy souvenir for friends and family.
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Some Japanese snacks include fairly ‘universal’ sweets, with a Japanese spin-off of green tea, (or ōcha) flavour. For example, Nestle Kit Kats are popular in Japan, and are not only available in milk chocolate flavour, but also green tea. Green tea flavoured ice cream is also sold in many restaurants, which gives a deliciously refreshing taste.
Green tea flavour is popular amongst foreigners as well as local people, who want a more ‘Japanese’ flavour, as opposed to western influences like strawberry, vanilla or chocolate. Green tea goes surprisingly well with sweet things, and you should try it at least once if you can.
Mochi is made from glutinous rice, and the savoury version is traditionally eaten in soup on New Year’s Day. It’s also a very popular sweet dessert or snack that’s available in most convenience stores and restaurants in different varieties in the form of daifuku, stuffed with a sweet filling such as red bean paste or green tea flavouring. Sometimes in summer, it’s stuffed with balls of ice cream to make mochi ice cream.
There are seasonal mochi too, such as sakura mochi (cherry blossom mochi), which differs in ingredients by region and is usually eaten on Hinamatsuri(Girls’ Day) and Hanami (cherry blossom viewing).
Other fillings of mochi ice cream and daifuku include strawberry, chocolate and vanilla.
Karinto may look strange, but it’s a yummy crunchy snack that’s been around since the 1800s. It’s made of yeast, flour and brown sugar, so it’s not as healthy as some traditional Japanese sweets. The dark brown appearance comes from it being deep fried, and it can come in either small, bite-sized portions or longer and wider, usually served warm at festivals and food stalls. They can also be bought in packaging in supermarkets. They can look very similar to beef jerky when packed like this, so make sure you know what you’re buying!
Wasanbon is a finely crushed and refined sugar, which is used to make wagashi, traditional Japanese sweets. These wagashi have a sweet ‘melt in the mouth’ feeling. They come in small boxes in cute shapes such as animals, cherry blossoms and more, and are said to be fairly expensive due to the special sugar, wasanbon, used as the main ingredient.
For a long time, wasanbon was considered a special sugar reserved only for sweets, but now it is also becoming popular for western sweets such as coating sugar for sponge cakes. It is also sometimes used as a sweetener for coffees and teas.
The Japanese have a way of presenting food to look pretty as well as tasty, as they’re sometimes sold as souvenirs or given as gifts. The Japanese care about their food and presentation is always important, whether it’s in a five-star restaurant or a street vendor selling taiyaki. When in Japan, try everything, and discover something new for your sweet tooth.