Konpeito - Japan's Iconic Tiny and Cute Star Shaped Candies
Are you familiar with the Japanese star-shaped candy known as konpeito? Commonly written as 金平糖 or こんぺいとう in Japanese, konpeito are tiny Japanese sugar candies that consist of many spiky edges, giving them their iconic star shapes. They also come in a variety of different colors and flavors. While these popular confections can be found anywhere in Japan these days, they actually originate from Portugal. Konpeito was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in the mid-1500s and later became a popular confection during the Meiji period. Want to know more about these cute and historic star-shaped candies? Keep reading because in this blog post, we’ll cover:
- Konpeito characteristics
- The history of konpeito
- The craft of making konpeito
- How konpeito has been incorporated into Japanese tradition and culture
- Uses of konpeito
- Where to buy konpeito
Traits of Konpeito
Konpeito is iconically known for being a tiny and star-shaped sugar candy. Texturally, these little candies hard and grainy-like. This is due to the fact that they are made almost entirely out of sugar. Texturally, they are quite crisp and dense. Besides their shape, they come in many colors that make them look almost jewel-like. You may mistake them as gems used for jewelry the first time you see them! Konpeito can be made using any color, but common colors include white, pink, yellow, green, and blue. They usually are not colored with vibrant hues, however, pastel-colors are often used because they give konpeito a fashionable and elegant look without being overly flashy.
Flavorwise, similarly to color, konpeito can come in virtually any flavor under the sun. Since these candies are crafted by artisans (we’ll get more into that later in this blog post.), it is up to the artisan to decide which flavors seem fit for their konpeito. However, unflavored (or, sugar-flavored) and fruity varieties such as yuzu, strawberry, and peach are common. Other interesting flavors include matcha, soda, salt, and even wine! There are variations of konpeito that use other kinds of sugar as well. While white granulated sugar is the most commonly chosen sugar for konpeito-making, some artisans opt for Japanese sugars such as Okinawan brown sugar or Wasabon, a Japanese confectioner's sugar, to give the konpeito candy a more traditional Japanese flair.
As for the shape of konpeito, it has already been established that these candies are known for being shaped like stars. This is due to how konpeito are made. It is quite hard to uniformly create konpeito candies, but 27 believed to be the ideal number of spikes that konpeito should have. Since the crafting process of konpeito is very unique, they do not come in any other shape.
Konpeito candies may be small, but they carry a large amount of history. In fact, it is said that they were first introduced to Japan in the 16th century by Portuguese traders. While the exact date of introduction is unknown, 1546 is believed to be the year that konpeito was brought to Japan. Around this time, other western confections such as castella cake were also being introduced in Japan. However, in the 16th century, sugar was still seen as a rare and luxurious commodity, and was only given as imperial gifts or used in religious offerings. Therefore, the popularity of konpeito did not pick up at this time.
The word ‘konpeito’ itself comes from the Portuguese word ‘confeito’, which means confection or candy. A notable example of konpeito’s introduction in Japan is when Portuguese trader, Luis Frois, gifted Oda Nobunaga, one of the most famous Japanese rulers, konpeito. Frois had presented konpeito in a glass flask, and gave it to Nobunaga as an offering to let the Portuguese continue along with their missionary work.
By the beginning of the Edo Period, or around the 17th century, sugar became much more widely available in Japan due to increased trade with the outside world. Once sugar was more established as an ingredient, the popularity of konpeito rapidly picked up. Artisans from Nagasaki and Kyoto were among the first to start crafting konpeito, but by the mid-Meiji era, its popularity rose throughout Japan and eventually became classified as a Japanese confection, or wagashi. These days, it plays an essential part of Japanese history, tradition, and culture.
Making konpeito is no small effort! In fact, it is quite the labor of love. It is said that making the candy can take anywhere from 7-13 days. But, why does it take so long to produce such tiny candies that are mostly made of sugar? Especially in the 21st century? This is because the traditional methods and techniques of making konpeito that were developed in the Meiji era, have been left un-updated.
Let’s break down the process of how they are made. First, the main ingredients of konpeito are sugar, water, and edible food coloring/flavoring. They are made with a machine called Dora. Dora is a traditional candy making machine that has been used since the Meiji period. Dora are giant and drum-shaped metal machines that can rotate and heat up, which are ideal for making konpeito.
At the center of each konpeito candy is a core of hard sugar. Originally, poppy seeds were used as the core center, but these days it is much more common for konpeito to feature a sugar core. Every single konpeito candy individually undergoes a rotation process, by being heated and accumulating layers of sugar syrup for days in order to acquire the correct shape. They are constantly being moved around and heated, and then the sugar syrup is added at different stages. The technique used gives konpeito their iconic bulges as well as allows them to acquire their hard and grainy texture. This is a quite slow and strenuous process because every single konpeito needs to undergo the same cooking and shaping processes. That’s why it can take anywhere from 7 to 13 days.
It is also said that it takes an immense amount of skill to make these tiny candies. Not only is the Dora machine difficult to use due to its size and the fact that it was invented in the Meiji period, but there also must be an extreme amount of care and detail that goes into each konpeito. Some say that it even takes more than 20 years of experience to get the technique right!
Uses of Konpeito
Though it has been established that konpeito has Portuguese origin, this candy has been very much integrated into Japanese culture. In fact, konpeito is included in many ceremonies, celebrations, and festivals in Japan. It is also commonly given out as a gift, and is even featured in anime and video games. It is very much established that konpeito is a kind of Japanese wagashi.
Giving Konpeito as a Gift
One example of konpeito being given as a present is as a wedding or childbirth gift. Konpeito given as a gift usually comes in an elaborate candy box, which is called ‘bonbonieru’ or ボンボニエール in Japanese. Bonbonieru comes from the French word bonbonnière which means candy box. Gifting konpeito dates all the way back to the commemoration of the Meiji constitution (1889) and has since remained both a gifting practice as well as the idea of being a symbol of good luck.
Interestingly, konpeito is a standard gift given by the Imperial House of Japan to thank guests for visiting them. This custom of the Imperial House gift giving konpeito has been practiced since 1890. Of course, the Imperial House also gives konpeito in the bonbonieru way.
Konpeito and Festivals
The cute aesthetic and small size of konpeito also make them perfect for appearing in festivals. It is not uncommon to see appearances of konpeito in Hinamatsuri or Tanabata festivals in Japan.
Konpeito is often used as a decoration for the Japanese holiday Hinamatsuri, which is a festival celebrating everything about girls during the springtime. While the tradition and history of celebrating Hinamatsuri as well as how it is celebrated, is something that can be discussed in another blog post, konpeito is a candy that commonly appears during Hinamatsuri. It can be given as a gift, or be used in a display, because the colors perfectly match the theme of Hinamatsuri.
Another festival that konpeito is often featured in is Tanabata, or the Star festival that commonly takes place on July 7th. As the celebration of Tanabata is all about stars and astronomy, it is the perfect occasion to feature konpeito.
Seeing Konpeito in Anime and Video Games
You may have recognized konpeito in some of your favorite anime. Konpeito is often seen with Susuwatari, or Japanese ghost yokai which are similar to soot sprites. An iconic example of this pairing can be found in the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away, where susuwatari are seen holding and eating konpeito. There is also a scene featuring susuwatari holding konpeito in the famous film My Neighbor Totoro. Other examples of konpeito appearing in video games include being used as star bits in Super Mario Galaxy, and as star fragments in Animal Crossing.
After learning about these cute and tiny star candies, maybe you’re thinking about purchasing them as a snack. But, where can you buy them from? If you’re lucky enough to make a trip to Japan, you can find konpeito readily available in any candy or snack section of supermarkets or convenience stores. They are also commonly sold in dagashiya, or traditional Japanese confectionery shops, major train stations, souvenir shops, and even observatories. Of course, if you can’t make a trip to Japan any time soon, you can also find konpeito at our shop in a variety of flavors. We hope that you’ll give these tiny, kawaii, and crunchy star candies a try!
I don’t live in Japan!