How Sweet It Is! Making wasanbon tea sweets

The frothy whipped green tea served in traditional Japanese tea ceremony is strong and bitter.  But unlike Western style tea or coffee, one does not ever add sugar!  That is not to say that we completely ignore Mary Poppins’ maxim.

Rather, for over 400 years in Japan, whenever traditional tea ceremony tea is served, it is accompanied by wasanbon, a small sweet that is popped into the mouth before drinking the tea.  Usually in pretty shapes and pastel colors, wasanbon are essentially just sugar.  Indeed, the fine-grained sugar used to make these sweets is known as wasanbon sugar.

Visitors can have the opportunity to make wasanbon sweets, enjoy them with a cup of tea, and take some home for later at Nishikiya, a small sweets shop in Kotohira, Kagawa Prefecture.  The sweet-making lesson takes just under an hour and costs just JPY1,080.

The lesson begins with a short talk about the origins of sugar production in Shikoku.  Wasanbon sugar is still grown/produced in the eastern-most section of Kagawa Prefecture.  The sugar has been milled to fine granules and is very moist.  In advance of our lesson, various colored batches have been prepared for us and stand ready in several large bowls.

Next we met the second key component of making wasanbon sweets: the molds.  Wooden molds, called kashiki-gata, are hand-carved, largely locally by craftsmen who have spent many years perfecting their skills.  Most molds are rectangular, with three identical impressions.  The molds have a bottom and top, that fit together in perfect alignment with the help of two strategically-placed pegs.  But the top section is not exactly a lid.  Rather, there is an opening through which the sugar is ultimately forced.

At our individual work stations, equipped with a small board and an even smaller metal spatula, we each chose a couple of molds and gave them a light dusting of cornstarch from small cheesecloth sachets.

Then we choose a color and begin to pack the wasanbon-to into the molds.

It’s important to pack the sugar in very tightly.  And then carefully scrape away any excess, leaving the packed sugar flat and flush with the top of the mold.

Now comes the trickiest part, removing the sweets from the mold.  Our instructor demonstrated, emphasizing that we need to slightly lift one end of the top portion and give it a little knock with the large wooden spatula.  This loosens the sugar from the mold.  Then the top can be lifted off and the molded sweets gently tipped out onto the working board.

Some of my “classmates” got very creative, using two different colors of sugar to create a particularly pleasing effect.

When the sweets are first tipped out of the molds they are still soft and need to be handled carefully, lest they crumble.  Our instructor assures us that after just 24 hours, they will have hardened into crunchy lumps of sweetness.  We pack our product into small gift boxes to take home in anticipation of that occurrence.

As we are doing this, a staff member brings in bowls of frothy green tea that we proceed to enjoy with the wasanbon sweets that we were unable to fit into our gift boxes.  Somehow, they tasted especially sweet.   And green tea has never tasted so good.


© 2019 and Vicki L. Beyer

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