What does it take to be a wagashi master? That’s what I set out to find out!
I had taken part a couple times in the twice daily (except for Wednesdays) wagashi class at Karakoro Art Studio, and although they change the seasonal themes every month, they tend to teach the same two basic modeling techniques. This is nice, since anyone who enjoys working with a Play-Doh substance can quickly pick some new techniques for making completed works of tasty art as part of a busy day of tourism (I promise they smell nothing like Play-Doh and likely taste far better. Don’t eat Play-Doh, eat something nice). This is great if you’re visiting Matsue, one of the top three spots in Japan for wagashi culture and production. But what if you live here, and already consider yourself a master at eating them?
I dug a little deeper and found that through my conversation at Saiundo, one of the many famous wagashi companies in Matsue, that many students come from other prefectures–or even other countries!–to study the craft of wagashi in monthly classes held at the Shimane Confectionery Training School. The classes are offered for different skill levels, and I had the opportunity to participate in the final session of the year for a 2nd level class. We started in the morning with dorayaki, and then spent the afternoon sculpting bean pasted based sweets, both by the both and by our imaginations.
This is probably a good time to point out that I usually cook with my imagination. No, allow me to rephrase that. I “prepare food reasonable enough for consumption,” not “cook.” I especially do not “bake.” Baking is a matter of taking a handful of substances and transforming them into different substances. You know. “Alchemy.”
Seeing as I am not an alchemist, I was a little flustered when I realized I would be expected to concoct my own batch of dorayaki, which are like sandwiches made with pancakes and anko (sweet red bean paste, sometimes smooth (koshi-an), sometimes chunky (tsubu-an)). I thought I would just observe for the day, not put any ingredients to waste!
To my surprise, however, my dorayaki were a huge success. I did everything from sifting the flour (I guess people still do that), weighing the ingredients (oh, I guess that would usually help when you’re trying to perform alchemy), whisking them together (and I paid attention to when and how much of each ingredient to put in, really!), pouring the batter on the griddle (there’s a technique for flinging the batter onto a flat ladle, I learned), and flipping them such that they reach the right airy texture and retain their circular shape. I made lots and lots and lots of these things.
I was feeling pretty good about this success. Maybe, with a little care and practice, I could be an alchemist too! Surely that would be the hardest part, as I’m already creative and artistic enough for the visual components of making confectioneries, right?
Yeah, a little creativity is nice, but if you want to be a professional wagashi master–as in, someone who can actually manage to sell their work, and lots of it–you need more discipline than creativity.
You typically don’t sell individual wagashi. As the visual appeal and craftsmanship is just as important as their taste and texture, wagashi are typically something to eat in the company of someone else, so that you can appreciate the finer details together. That’s part of the goal of promoters of wagashi culture–to make people slow down and enjoy each other’s company. That part of the overall goal of the tea ceremony as well, since appreciating the visual elements of the ceremony is part of how the host and guests enjoy that moment spent together. Passing around a single wagashi for everyone to enjoy the view of, however, is not only a bit of a pain and impractical, but do you really want everyone breathing on the treat you are about to partake of, or let it get dried out in the air as you wait for everyone to look at it, or risk it falling to the tatami (or worse) as it gets passed around to everyone who wants to see it?
No! You typically see everyone at a tea ceremony eating the same sweet, and people casually hosting friends or bringing home wagashi to share with their family will typically get multiples of the same one. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, and I’m sure there are people who like variety, but in general, you want everyone to have the same experience together of observing and tasting a unique piece of wagashi. I say “unique” to show they are usually seasonal designs which may only be available for a few weeks at a time, and will possibly never be sold again when the designs change in the following years. In order for everyone to enjoy that limited time wagashi, however, each wagashi sold needs to fit certain specs for the sake of consistency. The handmade effect is of course charming, of course, but as a customer you want a reasonable expectation of what you’re getting! That consistency, I learned, is very, very difficult to achieve.
A wagashi craftsman practices their techniques such that they can apply to any new and creative design, or any classic piece that people expect every year. These techniques are on professional tests, and the proof is in how well their wagashi fit the specs. In business, a few nice successes here and there won’t cut it. You need to have consistent successes. That is not only dependent on proper technique, but on the ingredients and on the environment in which you work as well. Even dry air will negatively affect them, so measures must be taken to ensure the proper humidity in the work space and in storage.
We didn’t work with each individual step that day, because the two bean-based pastes had already been prepared with just the right amount of sweetness. Although we didn’t have to worry about the taste, we needed to mix the colors ourselves and mold the sweets to go on display for the final presentation that evening.
There were issues and issues of monthly wagashi magazines set out for inspiration.
As I looked them over, the grandma-aged lady in attendance showed me the following pages and told me that each person would need to complete one of these sculptures.
This lady tells jokes with a straight face and she took pleasure in how susceptible I am to that.
Ultimately, the final presentation would consist of one slanted-cut chrysanthemum of the teachers’ choosing done by the book–14 petals! It must be 14 petals!!–and two of each students’ choice. Many of them made designs that they liked in the magazines or that they had seen else where, while others started with a plan and made their own unique pieces, or just starting molding and seeing what they would come up with. (Like me. That’s all I could manage after working so hard on the chrysanthemum.
I’ll post a video next time about the process of making the chrysanthemum, as well as my results. As for the rest of this entry, let’s look at what those second-level students produced instead.
In that time, the teacher was busy showing off a few other techniques as well. Sometimes it was instruct students who wanted to know how to making the wagashi in the magazines, sometimes it was to show off for my camera, and maybe some of it was for his own personal practice? Killing time? Killing material? I’m not sure. In any case, he was fun to watch.
As you’ll be able to tell more clearly in my upcoming entry, I’m not all that cut out for making wagashi. Maybe I won’t be a master at making them, but being a master at eating them’s not too bad.