Wagashi is a style of Japanese confections made from rice flour, beans, sugar, and water, that date back thousands of years. In Japan, they’re served in more formal ceremonies, as part of a tea service ritual, as well as casually, in hundreds of variations, depending on the season. Over six years ago, pastry chef Phoebe Ogawa left her job in tech to study wagashi-making full-time.
She attended pastry school in Kyoto, where she was its first student from the Americas while she worked at a local wagashi shop in the city. “I’m so happy I made the change, even if it happened later in life,” she says.
In 2019, she moved back to New York to become the pastry chef at the Japanese fine dining restaurant Kajitsu and its cafe, Kokage, in Murray Hill, known for its “Zen Buddhist Shojin cuisine” and a soundtrack designed by the late Ryuichi Sakamoto; she prepared all the desserts, specializing in wagashi.
Much like with the layered Southeast Asian dessert kuih, that’s been seeing new heights at spots like Lady Wong, there’s a desire to ensure that future generations have access to knowledge of the age-old wagashi recipes and techniques in NYC. Part of what attracts Ogawa to wagashi is that they’re precise and beautiful. She’s interested in sharing the process, not only in the name of educating others but also keeping the history alive. “At one point formally-trained wagashi-making was dying out in Japan,” she laments.
After 13 years, Kajitsu closed last year. Since then Ogawa has gone off on her own, continuing to make wagashi — now on her own schedule. She believes she is one of the only people working in New York at the moment who is formally trained in wagashi-making. Whether that’s true, she is certainly part of a tiny community in New York keeping the centuries-old tradition alive.
While Kajitsu helped her build her voice with wagashi-making, she has carried that to her own work. At Kajitsu, she was making omakase desserts for 30-45 people a night, plus lunch, in the cafe, and to-go dessert orders all herself. “At the restaurant, you have to simplify the process to be able to make that many,” she says. On her own terms now, she can set the pace and make more elaborate designs and variations: “I make everything from scratch, even the fillings.”
Out of a cooking studio in Long Island City, Ogawa handmakes nearly 100 wagashi a week, smaller quantities than at the restaurant. But each requires an extremely laborious process that can take hours, depending on the number of layers involved; you have to soak and cook the beans, steam the mochi, shape, and color, and let layers cool and set. Depending on the rice flour, the texture of the wagashi has different elasticity. “Everything I’m doing has been made, this is a very traditional process,” she says, adding she has her own marks.
To make the wagashi as she was trained to do, Ogawa had custom wood molds made for her in Japan. Not only is the practice of wagashi underexplored in New York, but the tools in order to make the desserts to her caliber, are almost impossible to find, she says. Getting custom molds made can be pricey, but Ogawa has spared no expense when trying to make wagashi that honors its very long tradition.
She has several tools she oscillates between, depending on the style of wagashi: For example, a sieve-style tool she uses to create texture works by turning the Play-Doh-like ball into confetti strands that she picks up with chopsticks and carefully uses for a sculptural effect.
Most are sold at the MogMog, a Japanese market on the same block, at 5-35 51st Avenue, near Vernon Boulevard, that she connected with during her time at Kajitsu. They encouraged her to make confections for the shop, which also sells premium fish, seasonings, fuyu persimmons, fresh bamboo shoots, and other hard-to-find Japanese pantry staples. At MogMog, individual wagashi — placed into plastic containers, making them look as luxe as gemstones on display at the Natural History Museum — are mostly under $10 per piece. Flavors change monthly, and on a recent visit, she was selling sakura mochi, with sweet red bean paste filling, wrapped in preserved cherry blossom leaf and blossom.
Ogawa also offers her wagashi on the weekends at Kettl, a Greenpoint teahouse, where they are presented as part of a tea experience. Additionally, she’s often hired to prepare wagashi for various educational courses or other related events.
There are several different types of wagashi: jyō-namagashi, shaped and colored into seasonal motifs, as she serves at Kettl, while mochi, manjū, dorayaki, dango (like the emoji), are considered to be everyday wagashi.
On April 20, she made a see-through wagashi for the day of “koku-u,” when the “spring rain of late April nurtures the growth of crops and grains,” she wrote on Instagram. For Thanksgiving, she crafted unconventional versions with kabocha and pumpkin spice, others with a caramelized apple filling or sweet potato. For Christmas, a matcha wagashi that looked like a miniature balsam fir tree.
Of the wagashi revival, she says, “there’s a new generation taking interest, especially thanks to social media.” Here, in New York, she’s excited to continue sharing the culture and hopes more join her in the field. “It can get lonely,” she says of the absence of a large community here. “I want to be able to go out and try other peoples’ wagashi and learn from it, but there aren’t people here formally trained.”