At Sayoko Sugiyama’s kitchen, she and her employees turn out about 1,000 pieces of wagashi, the traditional Japanese sweets served with green tea, every day.
They include snow-white representations of petal-covered blossoms, elaborately embossed apricot sweets and crystallized shoots from spring plants. The little pieces of art are created from ingredients like sticky rice or adzuki beans pounded into paste.
“It requires a lot of strength to mix,” Sugiyama said. “That’s why traditionally, men tend to dominate the industry.”
But things have been changing, slowly, for women in the Japanese confectionery business. The kitchens at big companies like Toraya, established in the 16th century, are usually run by men. But more and more women are opening small wagashi boutiques and experimenting with nontraditional flavors. Sugiyama has made sweets flavored with chai, hassaku (a Japanese citrus) and kuromoji (a shrubby and aromatic Japanese tree).
While wagashi are known for their beauty, to Sugiyama, it’s the taste that matters. “Even after spending the day cooking, I still want to eat them,” she said.