As the summer heat continues to rage on mercilessly in August, are you craving for a refreshing treat? Read on to learn more about the month of August and the signature wagashi which is sure to give you that much-needed coolness!
In the lunar calendar i.e. kyuureki, August which lasts from early September to early October in the Western calendar, was known by the name Hazuki (葉月). Although there are various theories as to how this name came about or what it means, the most-widely accepted version is that hazuki means the month when leaves fall i.e. haochizuki (葉落ち月). Other names for this month include hoharizuki (穂張り月) i.e. the month when the ears of the rice plant start to bend downwards, hatsukizuki (初来月) i.e. the month when the wild geese start their annual migration movement from the north, hoezuki (南風月) i.e. the month when there are many typhoons coming from the south, and tsukimizuki (月見月) i.e. the month for moon-viewing. With the adoption of the Western calendar in Japan, the name hazuki was naturally adopted to be used for August.
As August is in the middle of summer, there are two types of signature wagashi which are typically available at wagashi makers during this month. The similarity between them is that they both emphasize the feeling of coolness and refreshment in both the visual and taste departments.
First of all, I would like to introduce the Kingyoku (錦玉) which can be known by a variety of names in Japan. If you are in the Kanto region, you will probably see this wagashi with the name kingyoku; while in the Kansai region, you will see the same more commonly referred to as Kohakukan (琥珀羹). To add to the confusion, you may see other variations such as Kohaku (琥珀), Kohakutou (琥珀糖), Kohakugashi (琥珀菓子), Gingyokukan (錦玉羹) or Kingyokukan (金玉羹) but note that these names all refer to the same type of wagashi. As a general rule of thumb, if the agar (kanten) mixture used in the wagashi is not colored i.e. remains translucent or transparent, it is usually called kingyoku, while those which are colored tend to be called kohakukan. For the ease of referencing, I will use the name kingyoku only for the rest of the article.
The kingyoku is a wagashi primarily made from boiling kanten and sugar together before allowing it to cool and solidify. Depending on the type of kingyoku made, ingredients such as arrowroot, egg whites, coarse rice powder or nerikiri made from white bean paste are added to the kanten mixture. In order to achieve the yellow color as per the amber, the gardenia fruit is added to the kanten mixture as coloring. Alternatively, to make full use of the translucent appearance of the kanten to look like clear gemstones or to project a cool sensation visually, the kanten is sometimes left as it is. The kanten in this wagashi is actually known to have a cooling effect and is also refreshing on the palate thus adding to the popularity of the kingyoku during this season.
In summer, many types of kingyoku are colored to look like the sky, ground or water so as to reflect typical scenery and settings unique to this season. For example, Saiundo, a wagashi maker from Matsue in Shimane Prefecture launched Manten which is meant to represent the starry summer night sky. Besides the use of red bean paste to represent the ground, the sky portion which is in blue is decorated with gold dust to look like stars while the white portion is meant to look like the clouds seen in the night sky.
Another type of kingyoku commonly seen during summer would be the type featuring goldfish in a pond. Besides the clear kanten which may be tinted slightly in blue to represent water, the goldfish usually made from white bean paste is added alongside with beans to represent stones in a pond and green nerikiri to look like plants. As such, there is a great level of skill required to achieve this level of detail especially since the kingyoku is usually quite small.
The mizumanju is another signature wagashi to consume during this month which looks especially appealing with its dainty and pretty appearance. At Ogaki City in Gifu Prefecture, this popular wagashi originated during the Meiji era whereby the mizumanju is eaten together with iced water from the local area. As Ogaki is known to be a city of water where it enjoys an abundant supply of delicious underground water, this way of eating the mizumanju during summer adds to the cooling sensation on the palate and gradually became accepted as the standard method of consuming this wagashi.
The translucent outer skin of the mizumanju is made from arrowroot and bracken starch while the inner filling is usually made from red bean paste. However, there are many variations these days for the outer skin and inner filling. For example, the filling can be changed to fruits cut into smaller pieces or sweet pastes such as white bean paste or matcha paste. As for the outer skin, most of the mizumanju sold tend to be translucent but there have been new versions such as the matcha-flavoured type as featured in the photo above. Due to the use of arrowroot and bracken starch in the mizumanju, it is advisable not to keep this in the fridge for too long as the mizumanju will harden. It is also best to consume this on the day of purchase for the best flavor.
To make it easier for people to replicate this wagashi at home, there is a type of mizumanju powder called mizumanju no so (水まんじゅうの素) or tsuyukusa (露草) which usually contains starch, arrowroot, glucose, and kanten so you do not have to worry about getting the composition correctly. You just have to boil it together with sugar and chill the mixture to form the outer skin of the mizumanju. It is something you can look out for when you travel to Japan or at your local Japanese supermarket so that you can reproduce this tasty summer wagashi back home.
Having read so much about these two delicious and pretty-looking summer wagashi, do give them a try and savor the cooling sensation they have to offer!