Traditional Confectionery – A Comparison between Japanese Wagashi & Nonya Kueh

The advent of globalization saw the influx of Western goods, like cakes, pastries and snacks. Although this allowed the consumers to have more choices, it also had an effect on local snacks. The strong marketing tactics of Western food and its image perpetuated by popular culture of the West played a strong role in influencing consumer’s decision. Hence, popular local confectionary of the past like Wagashi and Nonya Kueh, now called traditional confectionary, would face the danger of being marginalized.

Since making such confectionary require skills, and demand is no longer as strong as in the past, the art of making traditional confectionary becomes exclusive. Thus traditional confectionary like the Wagashi, once part of the society’s popular culture, may become part of high culture, or it may also suffer the consequences of being phased out. Therefore, our paper seeks to find out the place of Wagashi and Nonya Kueh in their respective society and how it reflects the society’s culture and its worldviews. We will also discuss how the societies attempt to revive and popularize the traditional confectionary.

History of Wagashi

The name Wagashi meant Japan’s confectionary, since ‘Wa’ was an old name for Japan. Although it is as distinctively Japanese as the name would suggest, Wagashi is the product of a variety of foreign influences. Mochi and Dango made its debut during the Nara period through Buddhist monks. However, since it was for religious purposes, it was highly exclusive. The Muromachi period saw the arrival of the Portuguese, who introduced sugar. Sugar revolutionized the formula for sweetness and spurred further development in Wagashi making. It was not until the Edo period that confectionary in its modern form became popular among Japanese. The influx of Western cakes and desserts further influenced the development of Wagashi.

Western ingredients like milk, eggs, marshmallow, vanilla and chocolate were deemed too rich and sweet smelling. Not used to such ingredients, the Japanese indigenized their confectionary, using local products like Azuki beans, grains, potatoes, sesame seeds and Kanten. There are two major types of Wagashi – Namagashi and Higashi. Like Western cakes, they are eaten with green tea to offset the bitterness of the tea. Examples of Namagashi would include Mochi, Yokan, Manju and Daifuku. Since Nama implies uncooked, Nagamagashi has a short shelf life. On the other hand, Higashi are dried form of Wagashi made from rice, millet, sugar and mizu-ame. Higashi has low moisture content and hence, can be kept for a long time. Examples of Okoshi would include Rakugan, Sembei and Okoshi.


Although Wagashi is greatly influenced by the West, it is refined by Japanese art. Shinto plays a large role in shaping the aestheticism of Wagashi. One can experience the delights of Nature when the wagashi is presented. The harmony of colours, texture and shape of the Wagashi is the “physical transposition of the animistic view of nature. Each entity amounts to a basic essence. There is no hierarchy among essences; they all take their place and position in one grand chorus.” (Kenji, 1998:25) The use of mono no aware – sensivity of things is also reflected in wagashi, and establishes the relationship between Man and Nature.

Unfortunately, the urbanization of Japan had changed the relationship between Man and Nature. The increasing detachment of city dwellers from Nature and fast paced environment thus results in the inability to appreciate the true meaning behind Wagashi. In doing so, the locals, especially the youths, would see Wagashi as merely a food product, instead of a symbol of their culture. Therefore, this would account for the decline in popularity of Wagashi. Through the survey, we will attempt to find out their knowledge of Wagashi and their preference for Wagashi with regards to other types of confectionary.

In emphasizing the all-encompassing, harmonious nature of Shinto, the five senses are evoked during the consumption of Wagashi – appearance, taste, texture, scent and sound. Shapes, colours and designs of Wagashi are inspired by Japanese literary paintings and textile, often representing evocative images. The texture when one prepares and consumes the Wagashi is also import, because it reveals the “freshness, quality and uniqueness of the ingredients” (http://www.toraya-group). Similarly, “wagashi’s lyrical appeal to the ear comes from hearing the lyrical Japanese names of different varieties spoken aloud and the images these names evoke. Many names are derived from classical poetry, while others may suggest a season.” ( For example, a three-coloured Namagashi called Kozue No Aki, meaning “autumn on the Branch” represents the turning of Japanese maple leaves turning from green to yellow to red. Hence Wagashi is emulative of the four seasonal changes — spring, summer, autumn and winter. Therefore, when one consumes Wagashi, he is going through a joyous sensory experience of the particular season, akin to viewing the real scenery.

In order to create this illusory masterpiece, both the Wagashi artisans and consumers have to be knowledgeable in the cultural background of the confectionary. On the consumer’s level, their detachment to Nature as a result of urbanization affects their ability to connect with the animism element when consuming Wagashi. The introduction of machinery in the production of mass-produced Wagashi has posed a threat to the chefs, thus undermining the artisan spirit attached in the making of Wagashi. Moreover, as work notions changes, lesser people are willing to go into the Wagashi-making trade, thus attributing to the decline of Wagashi and in the process, making Wagashi an exclusive profession. This also results in the growing exclusivity of Wagashi.

Artisanal Spirit & Their Notion of Work

To better understand Wagashi, it is prudent that the artisans behind the craft be examined in greater detail. Through the understanding of their craft, it will further establish the place that Wagashi initially occupied in Japanese society. Similarly, other cultures peculiar to Japan can also be brought to the foreground in the course of that discussion.

During the class system era of the Tokugawa period, people in Japan were separated into various classes based on their occupations. At the top of the hierarchy would be the samurais followed by farmers while artisans ranked higher than merchants. Merchants were not seen as being productive since they were merely profiting from commerce while artisans were masters of their specialized craft. Kondo (1990) commented that the society had already deemed a special place for ‘shokunin’ (anyone who worked with their hands) and they were the bearers of unique traditions in Japan. Such pre-established traditional identities had already secured artisans access to a certain respected position in society that would set them apart from the rest of the work force. That mentality did not change all that much even when Japan underwent industrialization during the Meiji period.

It is important to take notice of the significance of artisan, and in this instance, Wagashi artisans because the making of Wagashi is not just a simple craft but also one that is laden with traditions. Since Wagashi symbolizes the appreciation of Nature, it pays particular attention to the changing seasons. “The seasons connect human beings to a culturally constructed natural world and hence also reinforce that same connectedness among other human beings” (Kondo, 1990:243). These Shinto aspects have been constantly demonstrated throughout the life of a Wagashi artisan, since the day that he became an apprentice.

RELATED POST:  Festivals in Japan

Apprenticeship in Japan was seen as the way that an individual is molded into a matured being; the obstacles hindering him were actually challenges that must be overcome if he was to succeed in life. The learning of the craft from a master formed the first step towards maturation. The process of maturation, ‘ichininmae’, assumes that there would definitely be ‘kuro’ (hardships) because it is only through this route “that the hard edges of immaturity be planed into the roundness of adulthood” (Kondo, 1990:235).

The young apprentices experienced the notion of hardship both physically and mentally. Since the masters were seen as kind enough to offer their teachings, they were not expected to pay their students much wages or to provide them with many benefits. Thus, those trainees often had to endure long hours of work with minimum rest coupled with the fact that they were separated from their loved ones as well. It was generally accepted by society that those harsh conditions were part and parcel of life and that the apprentices should just bear with it till they become masters themselves.

Shinto beliefs also extend into the craftsmanship of the artisans. Kondo wrote that they believe “that spirits, ‘kami’, may inhabit in animate and inanimate objects”(1990:246) hence there is a strong feeling of attachment towards the tools of their trade. These tools are not merely just to help the artisans in their profession but rather like an extension of their own body. All these encompass the artisanal spirit that serves as the guiding principle for the artisans.

Work to the artisans is not solely just to provide a means of living; it is the reason for their living. The effort and pride that they put into their trade is beyond monetary comparisons. However, there have been changes to that thinking as the younger generation steps into the profession. Modernization has transformed contemporary society into one that has emphasis on monetary gains and this logic has extended into the minds of the young. Not only has this transformation affected the foundations of the Wagashi artisan but there is also a possible decline in Wagashi itself, which would be examined later again in this paper.

Male-Dominated Environment

The making of Wagashi is essentially a male-dominated trade. This is seemingly in contrast to the notion that cooking belongs to the domain of the women. However, Wagashi making is a craft that is in the public sphere as compared to simple cooking which remains within the family sphere. There is a separation of gender inequality in this instance because there has been a division to demarcate the differences between the two spheres.

“Solidarity communities are based on the exclusion of the unskilled, which often includes women” (Kondo, 1990:231). In order to maintain that solidarity, skills are simply only taught to the males hence ensuring that females would be excluded. Women are relegated to being just assistants to the male Wagashi chefs, mainly involved in menial tasks. This reinforces Japan as being a patriarchal society where the women are only in the background and supporters to the men without any real presence in the social order.

Power in the work place resides with the head Wagashi chef as suggested by Kondo (1990) and they served as the symbolic centre of the factory and keeper of the dominant discourse. As bearers of their traditions, they have the ability to set down barriers to protect their close-knitted circle. As such, the constant cyclic process of just training male apprentices is allowed to carry on hence continuing to exclude participation of the women.

Although women have stepped into the work force decades ago, job equality has not permeated throughout the society especially in such craft that are bound by centuries of traditions and cannot be changed in a short period of time. Essentially, the primary role of women are still believed to be in the household while their participation in the work force is only secondary to that.

Peranakans & Nonya-Kueh Culture

Peranakans are a particular ethnic community in Asia because of the colonial period. “Babas” in Peranakan are males where “Nonya” refers to the female. Babas and Nonyas are people whose Islamic ancestors married Chinese spouses. However, they speak no Chinese, but rather, Baba Malay. Thus, theses mixed marriages that were common in the 15th century populated Asia with Chinese-Islams, who were detached from the native Malays from the Malay Archipelago.

As Penang, Malacca and Singapore, homes of the 3 significant Baba communities, were also important ports located along the Dutch and British maritime trading routes on the Straits of Malacca, the Spice Islands and China, much of their ways of life were influenced by exports from those countries. As such, with the available materials like palm, rice and tropical fruits, Peranakans came up with a form of cooking that was truly unique to their culture, identifying with neither the Chinese nor the Malays.

Peranakan dessert making chooses the local ingredients such as gula melaka (a very soft brown sugar named after Malacca), tropical fruits such as pineapples and bananas, and coconut milk. Nonya cuisine has adopted both Malay and Chinese ways of cooking but does not fall into either category because its own unique blend of culture is the essence of a community of people who emerged in the 15th century.

Peranakans value aesthetic in food, and therefore put in a lot of effort for the presentation of kueh. For their love of lively colours and delightful presentation, Nonya-kueh is always coloured in vibrant hues of red, blue, yellow and green. For example, the Babas use the bunga telang flower to get the blue colour for their kueh. Pandan will give a greenish colour, as well as a subtle accompanying fragrance, while increasing the shelf-life of the confectionary. Turmeric powder is used for a golden hue, while ramey leaves (duan ramai in Malay) provide a black colour with which kueh ku is made for the Hungry Ghost Festival, or death anniversaries.

For Peranakans, eating is a way of maintaining culture. Therefore, they insist that only the most natural ingredients be used for cooking. As such, training to cook is an integral part to any Nonya girl. In the past, most of them were not permitted to attend schools hence their role was to be at home, skilled in domestic duties and social etiquette.

As a Nonya’s behaviour was bound by social rules “which were a combination of Chinese patriarchal attributes and the Malay adapt, custom which stresses refinement” (Tay, 1995:144). Girls were expected to serve their families and her husband, and behave with utmost decorum.

Kueh-making is an important part of the Peranakan’s cooking heritage. The quality of the kueh made by the Nonya is “a measure of the skills and worth”. Because Nonyas do not venture out of their homes, marriages were arranged and therefore, cooking serves as a gauge for prospective mother-in-laws. In this sense, it follows that the Nonya girl’s “eligibility for marriage” is represented through the “tea table” as well as “a display of her cooking skills.” Traditional desserts for the wedding table include biji delima (bird’s nest drink), kueh lapis (layer cake), ondeh-ondeh (glutinous rice balls with palm sugar centre coated with shredded coconut) and apong bokwa (rice flour pancakes embedded with small banana pieces to be eaten with coconut milk and palm sugar syrup).

RELATED POST:  Naked festivals of Japan

As seen from the variety of kuehs described, it is evident that Peranakans, like the Japanese, have sweet tooth. And like them, the making and consumption of these kuehs go beyond simple cravings. Kuehs in the Peranakan community is of cultural and religious significance. Like the Chinese, Nonyas see kueh as representing Chinese aspirations for “prosperity, achievement, abundant offspring, family unity, happiness and longevity, and is offered as gifts as a form of entertainment for guests.

As time passes, the authenticity of Nonya-kueh in Singapore becomes diluted as more and more kueh is made in factories rather than by hands in the kitchens of traditional Peranakan families. Where previously the kueh is consumed privately by only families and relatives of the Peranakans, it is now being marketed everywhere and there is even a rising trend toward cafes that sell kueh. Like the famous Bengawang Solo that has populated Singapore, many other outlets have also been set up to cater to the cravings for kueh. These shops sell machine made kueh to the public by the thousands because of the demand. As such, the traditional art of kueh-making becomes lost. As people are now busy with daily activities, nobody has time to sit at home back in the kitchen to make these confectionaries, unless it is a special occasion. Hence, the art of kueh-making has become lost to the present generation of Peranakans, and the knowledge is perhaps limited to only the older generations.

Also, ingredients like rice and colourants have become more and more widely available in supermarkets, anyone who has the know-how and the recipe book can learn to make Nonya-kueh. As such, the art of kueh-making is no longer exclusive to the Peranakans. This has contributed to the diminishing in authenticity of the kueh precisely because ingredients-wise, other races may not be as picky as the Peranakans. As such, the green colour from pandan leaves can be substituted by the green colouring that is sold in bulk in supermarkets everywhere. Also, the banana leaves that provide the decorative purpose for kueh can be replaced by sheets of paper that serves the same function of providing a base so the kueh will not stick to the steamer in the process of steaming. In a sense, where previously every kind of ingredient is harvested from scratch, it is now being replaced by modern convenience. Therefore, the attachment that old Nonyas have toward their kueh may never again be regained by the present generation where everything is made available at their fingertips.

Another cause for the loss of authenticity of the Nonya-kueh stems from the fact that many manufacturers feel that it is prudent to modify the traditional kueh in order to suit the younger palate and hence boost their sales. As such, there is a shift towards using “modern” and “hip” ingredients to increase the attractiveness of the kueh. The pandan-kaya cake from Bengawang Solo boasts the Peranakan ingredients of pandan and kaya, but also western sponge cake at the bottom as a base. The traditional Nonya love-letters now come with fillings of strawberry, chocolate and pandan icing, whereas the authentic variety is simply hollow. In a period where people are getting more and more health-conscious, gula melaka, which is palm sugar that traditional Peranakans use for kueh, is substituted with artificial sweeteners, a healthier alternative. Similarly, the fattening coconut-milk is replaced with skimmed milk that is sold in aluminium cans. Hence, to keep up with the changing times and lifestyles of the present generation of not only Peranakans, but also Singaporeans in general, many manufacturers have changed the traditional recipe of Nonya-kueh simply to suit present gastronomical preference.

Wagashi Survey

The urbanization of Japan had changed the relationship between Man and Nature. The increasing detachment of city dwellers from Nature and fast paced environment thus results in the inability to appreciate the true meaning behind Wagashi. In doing so, the locals, especially the youths, would see Wagashi as merely a food product, instead of a symbol of their culture. Therefore, this would account for the decline in popularity of Wagashi. Through the survey, we will attempt to find out their knowledge of Wagashi

The survey was aimed at Japanese youths (aged 16-30) residing in Singapore about their opinions on Wagashi and below are the findings of the 50 people interviewed.

Wagashi still maintains a certain level of popularity amongst the youths although its consumption is not a regular basis. Fig 1.2 shows that Wagashi is only consumed once a month or once in a few months. A few possible explanations could account for that. As Wagashi varies according to seasons, its consumption only occurs when there are introduction of new type of Wagashi to coincide with the changing seasons. In addition, the cost of purchasing Wagashi can be quite expensive thus rendering it not economical for the pockets of the youths since they would be more willing to spend their money on other things like clothes, shoes etc.

Price was not the prime considerations of the Japanese youths when they purchase Wagashi. Apart from taste, appearance and packaging were ranked before price. Perhaps, this can be attributed to the Japanese emphasis on the 5 senses. As mentioned before in the paper, aestheticism remains an integral part of the Japanese society

With the onset of globalization, there has been an influx of Western products into Japan not unlike the earlier period of initial Western influences. In recent years, there has also been increase in the demand for chocolates with the producers making strong headways into the Japanese society. Similarly, it is noted that there has been a displacement of traditional Japanese confectionery in the wake of this new Western incursion.

The knowledge that Japanese youths possess about Wagashi is quite limited. It might be suggested that Wagashi is mainly just a normal food for them rather than as having implications of deeper cultural meanings.

Nonetheless, an overwhelming percentage of the youths felt that there should be changes made to Wagashi. Changes include making Wagashi trendier to attract the Japanese youths of today as well as reduction in prices in order to make it economical as well. Apart from such changes, Wagashi producers have also included the use of chocolates in Wagashi so as to modify their taste to suit modern trends. As mentioned earlier, the Japanese had rejected Western ingredients like chocolate because they were not used to it. In introducing chocolate into traditional Wagashi, it also means that Japanese taste have become Westernized. The opening of Wagashi cafes in Tokyo also signals a step in modernizing a traditional craft. By creating a trendy, minimalist Starbucks-like Wagashi café to bring it back into popular culture, it also indicates that Westernization has permeated into the Japanese popular culture. These modifications all serve to revive Wagashi and to restore its prominence in society.

The Japanese can be seen as being more open to changes in society. This could likely be attributed to their innovative spirit since the Meiji era where there was much incorporation of the West into their society thus they feel that making changes to traditional things is not an erosion of values but rather making them stronger in the wake of increased competition.


Wagashi has experienced a movement from being a popular culture to one of high culture in contemporary society. This transition is not only limited to the Japanese Wagashi but is also affecting the cultures of other countries as well. The global phenomenon of changes will continue as cultures interact with each other and modifications have to be made in order to ensure their respective survival in a globalised economy.

Nonya Kueh Survey

A survey was conducted to find out about people’s reactions towards Peranakan confectionery. A total of 50 Peranakan youths, aged 16-30, were surveyed. When asked about the popularity of Peranakan confectionery, 58% of the correspondents indicated they liked Peranakan kueh, with kueh lapis, a layered cake, being the most popular. However this result did not correspond to their regularity of eating the kuehs even among people who liked to eat Peranakan kueh. 32% ate Peranakan confectionery once a month while 52% ate them only once in a few months. Most people only consumke Peranakan confectionery only during occasions like Chinese New Year or at weddings. However, all these are often bought rather than baked. This could be attributed to the hectic lifestyle that people are leading nowadays.

When asked about things people took into consideration when purchasing the Peranakan confectionery, most people put taste as their top priority followed by appearance, price, packaging and availability. This reflects Peranakans’ high expectations for taste even when purchasing kuehs from outside hence producers will also try to adopt with consumers’ taste and preferences leading to changes in the composition of kuehs and thus, a loss in authenticity of kuehs.

Despite this, there is a declining popularity of Peranakan kuehs as can be seen from the majority of survey correspondents telling us that they prefer cookies and other western pastries and cakes if given a choice between Western confectionery and Peranakan kuehs. Thus it can be concluded that people nowadays, especially those in their twenties, are influenced by Western culture. Thus, even the leaning of people’s preference for kueh lapis, a popular Peranakan confectionery, could also be due to the fact that kueh lapis is actually a type of cake.

On retrospect, most people are presently exposed to influences from the world due to globalisation and the Internet. Thus, due to a greater market, it is not surprising that consumers nowadays are spoilt for choice. Hence, leading to people forsaking the traditional Peranakan confectionery for Western confectionery that could be viewed as more “high-class”. Furthermore, young Perankans today no longer have the interest in the asthetics of baking Perankan confectionery, which is very much a great part of their culture as the blood is “too diluted” in the words of a young Peranakan interviewed. People no longer view baking as important as in the fifties. A lot of people would rather purchase the Peranakan confectionery from shops like Bengawan Solo rather then bake them as they find it too much of a chore to do everything from scratch. In fact, most of the surveyees who are Peranakans didn’t even know the names of the Peranakan kuehs that they like when ask to name some of their favourites.

It is thus ironic to learn this since there are still a substantial number of people who like to consume Peranakan kueh due to the assumption that the taste of Peranakan kuehs are generally better then the rest of confectionery. This can be seen in shops like Bengawan Solo, which sells mainly Peranakan confectionery, popping up in many neighbourhoods in Singapore, becoming a household name and thus suggesting a regular demand for Peranakan confectionery. Yet, the frequency of people going into such shops to buy confectionery is much lower then the frequency of people patronising shops like Breadtalk and Prima Deli which sells Western confectionery.

Hence, when comparing Wagashi and Peranakan confectionery, there is a marked similarity in the declining popularity of both. However, while there is a growing market for a revamped Wagashi despite its price as can be seen in cafes setting up in the recent years, there is a declining trend for Peranakan kuehs despite lower prices and an adaptation to consumer preferences such as the pandan kaya cake in Bengawan Solo. This could be perhaps attributed to the fact that there is a rising fad in South East Asia for Japanese goods due to the exposure to the culture in the form of popular television serials and artistes.

The absence of such a fad could explain why the demand of Peranakan kuehs can only remain constant or drop while for Wagashi, there is a possibility of increasing demand due to innovations. Furthermore, since Wagashi is expensive as compared to other types of confectionery and the shops in Singapore are also situated in places like Takashimaya that are frequented by the elites thus creating a trend of it becoming a high culture. This is as opposed to the fact that Peranakan kuehs are very cheap so there is no sense of “exclusiveness” and special feeling when people buy Peranakan kueh since more often then not, people feel good when they purchase something exclusive. This is further worsen by the fact that there is no conscious effort to market Peranakan kueh as something hip and trendy by changing the packaging of the kuehs and overall image of the shops that sell such confectionery.


The future of Wagashi and Nonya Kueh are moving in divergent directions. For Wagashi, it now appears as a high culture rather than the popular culture of the past. Although there have been plans to revitalize its popularity, success have been quite limited. However, it is very unlikely that Wagashi will ever be phrased out since there will remain loyal supporters.

As for Nonya Kueh, it is hard to access if it is a popular culture in society. Although it is marketed quite commonly in Singapore, it does not attract much attention from society. In that sense, nonya kueh appears to be just lying in the backdrop of contemporary society. Likewise, the low cost and almost non-existent marketing strategies seem to suggest that the kueh producers are comfortable with leaving the situation as they remain at the moment. Thus nonya kueh is something that exists yet obscured.

It is without a doubt that in the face of global competition, producers of traditional confectionery are finding it tough to survive. The different strategies undertaken were attempts to revive their dwindling trade. However, it would be simplistic to think that the flow of culture is a one-sided affair, from the West to the East. The West has also been exposed to Eastern culture and there might also be changes to Western culture in this age of globalization. Hence, culture can be seen to be constantly evolving and hybridization of the various traditions could be the way of the future.


1) Kondo, Dorinne K. (1990) Crafting Selves: Power, Gender & Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
2) Tay, Olivia. (1995) The Historical Perspective on Nonya Kueh-Making in Singapore in The Necessity of Craft/ Development & Women’s Craft Practices in the Asian-Pacific Region. University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands.

3) Kenji, Ekuan. (1998) The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox. The MIT Press, Massachusetts


Sign up for updates

About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

Keep Reading

Leave a Comment