Last week I went to a Wasanbon class at the Daiwa Foundation, organised by the Japan Society. Very nice, but what is Wasanbon? Wasanbon are those adorable little Japanese sugar sweets you often get served at a tea ceremony or alongside a cup of green tea. Typically pastel shades of pink, yellow, green, blue and white and often shaped like flowers.
Ayumi Uehara, who's father Yoshihiro Ichihara, at 71, is the youngest of a handful of Japanese craftsmen still producing traditionally carved wooden moulds for these artistic sweets, explained the history and uniqueness of Wasanbon. She explained that Wasanbon fall into the Wagashi family of sweets in Japan. Wagashi literally being 'Japanese sweets' as opposed to Yogashi, western style cakes, pastries and deserts. Wagashi are traditionally very decorative and change with the seasons, reflecting colours, nature and seasonal produce.
Over two hundred years ago, in the Edo period, sugar was extremely expensive in Japan and apart 'kuro sato' or black sugar produced in Kagoshima it had to be imported from China. The uniqueness of kuro sato was protected and sugar cane plants couldn't be grown elsewhere in Japan under pain of death. However, a lucky encounter between a Samurai from Kagoshima and a man from Kagawa (tasked by his local lord to find a way to produce sugar) led to the invention of wasanbon sugar. There's some life saving, smuggling and thirty years of experimentation there as well, but you get the gist.
Wasanbon sugar is basically a very very fine sugar produced through a complex process of boiling, refining and kneading. This produces a fine powder that is unique and unlike any sugar we're used to. Finer than castor sugar but not as powdery as icing sugar it has squeaky texture a bit like cornflour or potato starch.
The making of Wasanbon sweets is actually super simple, the sugar is moistened with a small amount of water (to which food colour can be added) and then mixed and kneading thoroughly so that all the grains are wet. Its then sifted to break up any clumps. You then pack and press the damp sugar into the beautiful wooden moulds (which come in two pieces to help with the 3D shape of the sweets). Press firmly and then with a tap to release, the top part of the mould is released, flip over the bottom and you have your exquisitely detailed sweets.
The real beauty and skill in Wasanbon is down to the carving of the moulds using seasoned cherry wood for its supremely fine grain which gives detailed results. So if you're in Japan try some Wasanbon!
I've enjoyed Wasanbon frequently at tea ceremonies and always marvelled at their detail but know that I've had a go at making them and know their story, I shall enjoy them even more. (I now really want a set of moulds and to make some more myself, such fun!)