14 July 2023
A Tasty Tour of Japan's Seasonal Summer Sweets
Many may be well-acquainted with Japan's mesmerizing four seasons and the beautiful aesthetics they inspire. And the grace of each season is imbued in culinary delights of Japan, with sweets being no exception.
Made in fresh, cool flavors and artful motifs, Japanese summer confections are crafted to express the season's bountiful offerings and provide soothing solace during the hot weather. See how we savor the essence of summer in a bite of these Japanese sweet delicacies.
- Kakigori - Japanese Shaved Ice
- Mizu Yokan - Soft Japanese Red Bean Jelly
- Waka Ayu - Sweetfish-shaped Cake
- Anmitsu - Jelly Cubes with Red Bean Paste and Fruit
- Summer-Motif Nerigashi - Japanese Sweets Made of Bean Paste
Kakigori - Japanese Shaved Ice
The classic summer sweets, "Kakigori." Kakigori is a simple yet delectable icy treat made with shaved ice coated with a colorfully sweet syrup.
Amongst the sea of food stalls at summer festivals, known as "Omatsuri" in Japan, kakigori stalls are one of the most popular, if not THE most popular. A rainbow of vibrant syrups color small mounds of crunchy shaved ice in the hands of children and adults enjoying the festivities of the omatsuri.
Kakigori can also be enjoyed at confectioners and other eateries during the hot season. The signature flag with the red-colored character "氷," meaning "ice" in Japanese, is how you can spot an eatery that serves kakigori. Kakigori served at confectioners are usually larger in size, and are generously drizzled with a wider variation of syrups. Special toppings prepared with attention to detail such as freshly cut seasonal fruit or mochi balls are also extra touches seen on kakigori at confectioners.
Some shops offer kakigori made with natural ice, which is ice naturally frozen in special ponds filled with pure spring water. Incredibly, kakigori made with shaved natural ice is brain-freeze free!
It's no surprise that some popular kakigori shops have customers waiting in line for hours just to indulge in this icy delight.
You can also enjoy kakigori at home to cool off on those hot and muggy days during summer. Do a quick read of our blog "
Mizu Yokan - Soft Japanese Red Bean Jelly
Another traditional summer favorite is "Mizu Yokan," a lighter rendition of the standard dense and rich "Yokan." Owing to its higher content of water, Mizu Yokan has a distinct moist and soft texture. It simply melts in one's mouth leaving a refreshing aftertaste.
This is a snap version of how Mizu Yokan is made. First, "Kanten" (a plant-based alternative to gelatin) is melted in hot water, then smooth red bean paste and sugar are added and is let cool to harden.
It is said that Mizu Yokan was first created in the middle of the Edo period (c.1603-1867) and became accessible to the general public after the Meiji era (1868-1912). Traditionally, Mizu Yokan was served as a sweet dish with "Osechi Ryori," traditional Japanese cuisine eaten on the first three days of the New Year. But technological advancements eventually allowed people to eat this beloved treat all year round. Now it is considered a summertime staple offering a refreshing respite from the grueling heat.
Waka Ayu - Sweetfish-shaped Cakes
"Ayu" are fish that herald the arrival of early summer. Known as "sweetfish" in English, young Ayu dance in the murmurs of clear mountain water rivers around the early days of summer. And "Waka Ayu" are sweets made in the image of these young Ayu ("waka" translates to "young"). A faintly sweet exterior pancake is paired with a pleasantly chewy mochi-filling which gives this treat its lovingly characteristic plump shape.
A thin Japanese-style pancake is folded in half and is then filled with a glutinous sweet mochi called "Gyuhi." This delicacy is said to have been inspired by a Japanese confectioner named "Chofu" in Okayama Prefecture. Now sold throughout Japan, it is a classic treat that announces the arrival of summer with its eye-catching visual appeal.
Oh, and just to clarify, fish do not play any part whatsoever in the production of Waka Ayu!
Anmitsu - Jelly Cubes with Red Bean Paste and Fruit
"Anmitsu" is a treasure box of yummy delights in a cup.
The "an" in Anmitsu comes from anko, red bean paste, and "mitsu" translates to "syrup" which is poured right before eating this sweet treat. Anmitsu is a delectable mixture of anko, jelly cubes (made using the same ingredient as Mizu Yokan), Gyuhi, fruit, and boiled red peas, and is served with a rich brown syrup.
Interestingly, the creation of this special treat was inspired by a customer's request. Story has it that the original Anmitsu was conceived in Tokyo by the esteemed confectionery, "Ginza Wakamatsu." The eatery was known for serving "Mitsumame," a dessert consisting of red peas, jelly cubes, Gyuhi (soft Mochi), and fruit. However, in 1930, a regular customer desired something sweeter. In response, the shop decided to enhance their Mitsumame by adding Anko (red bean paste) and syrup on top. This creative addition led to the birth of Anmitsu!
The enjoyment of Anmitsu is in the pleasurable mix of textures and flavors. It is a joy to savor the culinary harmony of all the ingredients. The saltiness of the peas, and sweetness of the anko, the freshness of the fruit, and the rich sweetness of the syrup create a symphony of flavors in one's mouth.
Summer-motif Nerigashi - Japanese Sweets Made of Bean Paste
A traditional Japanese confection, "Nerigashi" is renowned for its exquisite visual appeal and subtle sweetness.
Also known as "Nerikiri," which translates to "kneaded and shaped," this traditional delight is made by carefully mixing ingredients and crafting its artisanal appearance. Intricate designs and shapes are created with a mixture of "Shiro-an", white bean paste, and with a sweet smooth red bean paste filling. Nerigashi can be given a summer-inspired twist by being filled with seasonal fruits such as the Nerigashi seen above that comes with a smooth-anko filling accented with figs.
Skilled craftspersons use special tools to shape the outer layer into various motifs inspired by natural surroundings and seasonal themes. The Nerigashi in the photo above is made in the shape of an "Ao-Ume," a young plum often seen on plum trees in early summer.
They are, indeed, true pieces of art.
We hope you've enjoyed discovering the delightful array of seasonal treats we cherish during the scorching summer months in Japan. Summertime confections extend beyond simple, cool indulgence: they are an expression of the flourishing season, a custom-crafted culinary representation filled with tradition.
In Japan, each season offers its own delectable flavors to look forward to. Adding an extra touch of sweetness makes a culinary experience all the more pleasurable. We hope that you have the opportunity to savor the delights of the summer season and of the forthcoming seasons as you continue your journey into Japanese cuisine.