Back in the 1990s to early 2000s, my sister worked as a chef in the kitchen of the Toraya Cafe in New York City, the sole North American branch of a famous wagashi (traditional Japanese confections) maker that has been in business since the late 16th century. Her job was to create savory lunch items that would complement the lineup of traditional sweet confectioneries that Toraya is renowned for. She enjoyed her job and found it challenging, but there was one problem — the store, located on the Upper East Side right around the corner from the Frick Museum, had trouble attracting customers. The Japanese expat community loved it (Yoko Ono was a regular customer), but the locals seemed to find the bean and rice-based confectioneries hard to get used to. Toraya New York eventually closed their doors in 2003.

In the 15 years since, awareness of Japanese cuisine in general around the world has increased greatly, including an appreciation for wagashi. The word wagashi literally means Japanese snack, although it usually means sweet confections. They range from homey items such as kushi dango, rice dumplings on skewers coated with a bean paste, to the highly refined, delicate confections called jo-namagashi that are formed in shapes that reflect the seasons.

Most wagashi are based on a few simple ingredients, with white or brown sugar, beans (both red adzuki beans and white beans) and short-grain (mochi) rice and rice flour as the most common, while a paste made with finely pureed beans and sugar called an is often used as a filling or topping. Some wagashi also use kanten (agar), kuzu (kudzu) flour, wheat flour or potato starch, as well as starch-based sweeteners such as mizuame (a clear sugar syrup). Many wagashi are quite sweet, since they are meant to be paired with the slight bitterness of green tea, and some have a touch of salt or soy sauce to enhance their sweetness.