Last weekend I visited London with a colleague and discovered what's probably one of my favorite shops ever: Minamoto Kitchoan, a confectionery of traditional Japanese sweets also called a wagashi-ya (和菓子屋). It was almost by accident that we stumbled upon this shop twice and each experience was unique!
Real Japanese sweets (wagashi) have the particularity of being relatively healthy, exquisite and wrapped with taste in a packaging reminding you sometimes of the Origami art. I have often seen the industrial sweets sold in Asian shops in Brussels but none of them compare to the quality at Minamoto! Some famous wagashi include the Dorayaki (Red bean paste sandwiched between two fluffy pancakes), the Mochi or Hakutou (Jello) which have become quite popular these days. Well, Minamoto sells these and so much more, categorizing each piece as Seasonal or Signature Wagashis.
Signature wagashi: those sweets are the star products that are sold all year-round.
Seasonal wagashi: these are the sweets that are designed and sold seasonally, they will last for a season only.
When I visited Minamoto Kitchoan, the shop was decorated in a very summery way with what looked like Koinobori (鯉のぼり) which look like koi fish paper lamps/streamers. Cherry tree prints hanged on the walls and added a final touch to the overall summery feel. The presentation of the sweets was delicate and colorful which is exactly what I expected from a pure Japanese store :) The staff was absolutely lovely, welcoming you with the traditional "irasshaimase" (いらっしゃいませ) and carefully tending to customers. During my second visit, in Picadilly this time, the shop even organized a tea tasting and a tea ceremony! I was impressed and learned a lot about how to properly prepare and drink Macha as well as the difference between brands and tea types.
After a first tour of the shop, discovering all the flavors and the different wagashi types, I must say I had to make a hard choice. Equipped with my basket, I started to pick the sweets I really wanted to taste and there were many of them... I picked a lot of seasonal wagashis because they cannot be found all year round and I also took a few signature ones to find out how it should really taste.
In short I went for:
The Taiyong - Yusui (mango)
The Shimizuhakuto Jello (peach)
The Shijunoko (blueberry)
The Saisaika (Loquat)
The Kingiyo (the cute little fish one)
The Dorayaki (red bean between 2 pancakes)
The white peach Mochi
The Benihanaringo (jello with kidney bean and apple)
Ok I admit that's a lot to try, especially considering the price per piece but a good wagashi is rare. In my opinion and after tasting a few of them, the price is high yes but totally worth it if you think about the quality of the product, the lovely wrapping and the service at the boutique. On top of that, I heard the wagashis are prepared in Japan and shipped, which is not the most eco-friendly thing to do, but it's another cost included in the price and a guarantee of quality.
The other important aspect that I take into consideration when I buy expensive sweets is the customer experience and Minamoto was outstanding here as well. On my second visit, a tea ceremony and tasting was organised. The tea master took the time to explain the origins of matcha, the differences between brands and parts of the plant, how to prepare matcha and the rites on how to drink it (how to hold your cup!). Me and a Taiwanese girl got to try 3 sorts of matcha produced by Minamoto: the Kinrin, the Kissho and finally the Aoairashi that is used for cooking. We ended the session on a cold note with an iced Matcha that was simply delicious.
If at first your taste buds are attacked by the amino-acids present in the matcha and you feel like you're eating spinach, with time you start to taste the difference between the teas and the subtlety of each flavor. I was glad to visit on that day because I learned a lot in terms of tea and Japanese words and I avoided some rain :)
All in all, I highly recommend the experience at least once so you get a taste of what's a real wagashi. Then if you are looking for a cool gift to bring back or if you have Asian in-laws like me, this can be a lovely surprise for them :) Let's face it, who wouldn't like a gift like this?
Want to visit Minamoto Kitchoan London? Check the map below and remember that there are 2 shops: Picadilly & Charing Cross!