Be it austere sushi counters with lengthy fish-focused omakases or dimly lit whisky drinking dens, Manhattan has experienced a swell of Japanese dining and drinking establishments over the last few years. Up next: places dedicated to traditional Japanese sweets known as wagashi, elegant desserts commonly made from plant-based ingredients and served beside tea. They range from common (mochi) to harder-to-find, like yokan, which are jelly cakes flavored with red or white beans.
Tiny East Village teahouse Cha-an may be responsible for introducing the Big Apple to delicate Japanese desserts flavored with black sesame and hojicha (roast green tea) nearly 15 years ago. But in the last year, myriad new concepts have hit the city, and they're continuing to educate hungry denizens on the beauty of Japanese sweets. Below, a cheat sheet to various types wagashi and where to find them in New York City.
Japan's most popular summertime sweet is kakigori, shaved ice that's molded into a mountain and flavored with seasonal syrups made from fresh fruit or tea. Though many cultures around the world serve shaved-ice desserts, "the majority of those are made with ice that is infused with milk," Gaston Becherano explains. He's the cofounder of New York's first kakigori operation, Bonsai Kakigori, which debuted in January. Somewhat of an Americanized take on the classic Japanese sweet, Bonsai Kakigori flavors its heaps of airy ice with combinations like coconut-lime crunch and pineapple upside down.
This popular wagashi is sold at tea cafés and looks like a pancake sandwich made from two flat, spongy cakes the size of small fists filled with red bean, chestnut or sweet potato paste. Japanese dessert shop The Little One, which hit the Lower East Side last December, preps seasonal and sophisticated riffs on classic dorayaki, flavored with stuffings like chocolate coconut and confit Honeycrisp apples with mascarpone cream.
Pineapple, Coconut & Red Bean Dorayaki at The Little One | Photo: Vicky Lee
In the U.S., the word mochi brings to mind the classic chewy Japanese dessert made from glutinous rice rolled into a ball and stuffed with various sweet fillings. But in Japan, mochi can be produced from a variety of ingredients, from rice to kudzu (arrowroot) starch, molded into an endless variety of shapes. Mochi Rin, helmed by chef Fujiko Aoki, supplies some of New York's most stunning seasonal confections to restaurants like Kosaka and EN Japanese Brasserie, and also makes them by special order, using the best local and organic ingredients. Meanwhile, recently opened Lower East Side Japanese café Davelle is looking to add daifuku, mochi filled with red bean, to its menu in the future.
"Monaka ice cream is one of the most popular dessert items in Japan!" That's according to Kuniaki Yoshiaki, chef and manager at New York's new outlet of Tokyo-based fish-focused Japanese resto, Wokuni, and it's clear why. Traditionally, monaka is a dessert sandwich made from fragile, unsweetened wafer cookies of various shapes, held together by ingredients like red bean or chestnut paste. But ice cream has proved a popular––albeit more modern––filling, too, hence the matcha ice cream-filled monaka you'll find in New York.
A traditional type of wagashi assembled in different styles, anmitsu is frequently served in a bowl and incorporates a mix of agar-agar jelly, red bean paste, fruit, mochi, ice cream and sugar syrup. Cha-an flavors its jelly cubes with hojicha and decorates the confection with small mochi balls, hojicha ice cream and a drizzle of black sugar syrup.
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