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Food

Slideshow: The Art of Food - Japanese Confections Made in Portland


Wagashi

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Last year, Gena Renaud started Yume Confections, which specializes in fresh, handmade Japanese and Asian-inspired confections called wagashi. We met with her to learn about wagashi and why she started her business.

Q&A with Gena Renaud

Gena Renaud of Yume Confections

Bruce Wolf

Q: Please tell us what wagashi is.

A: The word “wagashi” refers to traditional Japanese confections. The character pronounced “wa” denotes things Japanese, while the character for “kashi” (gashi) means confections. Wagashi are made primarily from ingredients that are native to Japan like sweet rice, beans, seaweed, fruits, vegetables, roots and nuts.

The sweets are designed to appeal to the eye by evoking forms in nature with particular regard to the changing seasons. Often wagashi are given names that allude to ancient literature or poetry, so that the eating of these sweets can be a sensual and complex experience on many levels. Though they are still integral to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, wagashi are now eaten regularly as a snack.

Q: What does it taste like? Can you tell us about different types of wagashi?

A: The flavors of wagashi are overall more subtle and less sweet than most Western confections. Some flavors are familiar, like cinnamon that’s used in making “Yatsuhashi”; however, many people have never tried the lovely delicate flavor of candied burdock root used in the New Year sweet “Hanabira mochi.”

There are many types of wagashi. Different regions of Japan produce their local favorites based on their special local ingredients or with subtle seasonal flavors, but I can tell you about a few of them.

Namagashi is prepared through a method of making a supple dough of bean paste and sweet rice flour or wheat flour that can be formed by hand or through the use of traditional molds to create beautiful shapes and designs from nature. They’re always made fresh to be eaten the same day.

Mushi (steamed) Manju is a fluffy wheat flour steamed bun, which is usually filled with either smooth or whole red bean paste called “an” (pronounced awn).

Nectarine Sunrise made by Yume Confections

Gena Renaud

Some of the most visually striking wagashi are sweets made with kanten gelatin (agar-agar). They often have an enticing shimmer and glow. Last summer, Yume Confections introduced a sweet called “nectarine sunrise,” inspired by the colors and flavors of our local nectarines, which were so stunning and bright that we had to capture their brilliance and flavor in a wagashi.

Q: How do you recommend people serve wagashi?

A: Unlike Western desserts eaten after a meal, these confections are best enjoyed on their own with a cup of green tea. I think inviting a friend to join you is even better, and of course, the most ideal way to enjoy wagashi is within the context of the tea ceremony where the sweet is eaten completely before drinking the matcha.

Q: You have been an accomplished artist and designer and produced numerous materials for companies like Nike and Michael Curry Design. What made you change your career and start your wagashi business?

A: I’ve always loved designing and making things, so I’ve been fortunate to find interesting work where I was able to learn and utilize a lot of different skills. I also loved preparing and sharing food with family and friends. Especially living in Portland where there’s such abundance and access to beautiful fruits, berries, nuts and produce. After years of baking pies and breads, canning summer fruit and putting up preserves and pickles, I wanted to find a way to merge those two worlds into one, and I soon remembered wagashi.

My first experience of these delicacies was when I was 5. My mother and I would drive over a hundred miles (to Seattle) to procure these treats along with all her other favorite Japanese foods. I mean — we drove over a hundred miles!

When I was 8 years old, I moved with my family to Japan where we lived for four years. It was then that I grew to understand and appreciate the charm and deliciousness of wagashi, and how it was incorporated into everyday life. It could be found in old shops in Kyoto, upscale department stores, and in neighborhood tea houses. At age 11, I had the good fortune of being invited to my first tea ceremony and experiencing the calm and gracious setting the host had created in serving the sweets.

I guess the simple answer is that, for me, making wagashi is the perfect confluence of art, culture and food.

Q: Was it difficult for you to learn how to make wagashi?

A: I’m still learning, and I imagine it will never end! According to Japanese confectioners, they say it takes 20 years to master the art of wagashi. That may explain why so many of the Kyoto confectioners I’ve seen pictures of are in their 70s and 80s. It would be ideal to study under one of them, so I’m doing my research.

Because there are so many types of wagashi, there are several techniques to learn. Some require strength and stamina, while most are exercises in precision and patience. All require time. I enjoy the variety of methods of preparation and the unique ingredients that have qualities that are so similar to materials I’ve worked with in the studio like clay, glass and cast resin. The visual creativity, and the balancing of textures and flavors, keeps me excited to try new things.

Go See It!

Wagashi: Japanese Sweets by Gena Renaud

  • When: Fridays, February 3, 10, 17 & 24, noon-3pm
  • Where: Portland Japanese Garden
  • Visit website

Another aspect of making wagashi is to understand the world in which it comes from, and that’s Chado (The Way of Tea). There, one finds a whole world of literature, spirituality, garden design, architecture….it’s all encompassing. When you begin to learn all those things, you’ll have an idea about what to make, when to make it and perhaps what to name it. I’m still learning.

Gena Renaud will be presenting Yume Confections’ wagashi at the Portland Japanese Garden on Fridays, February 3, 10, 17 and 24 from noon-3pm. Stop by to sample their wagashi and learn more about it from Renaud.

Visit the Yume Confections website to find out more about their wagashi.

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