from the Heart of Japan
The sakura will bloom again next year. These were the words the mayor of Tokyo used to urge people not to congregate in revelry under full blooming cherry trees in parks over this past weekend. It was part of a plea to the residents of her city to stay home...
These specific flavors of a region are attributed to fudo, a concept akin to terroir that refers not only to the natural elements of a place but also to its spiritual attributes and suggests that the air, the light, the water, the soil, infuse local flavors with a quality that cannot be replicated elsewhere.
Sakamoto san emerged from the sea in a black wetsuit trawling a large harvest of shin-wakame. The lobe-leafed new spring algae spilled from nets belted to his waist. Already in his sixties, he was the eldest of a group of male ama, free divers with a name that roughly translates to sea warriors.
The days lengthen and we grasp any break in the weather to walk the country roads and gather warabi, the sprouts of bracken fern. Warabi are enticing, exotic, mysterious creatures that emerge with necks bent deep and infant fronds clasped like a raptor’s talon.
Walking into Kuniko’s pantry is like entering a laboratory. Under the bright glare of florescent lights shelves rise from floor to ceiling all around. They moan under the weight of jars containing edible specimens preserved in variously colored brines.
Working by Kuniko's side I scribbled notes on a piece of paper recording amounts, ratios, timing, and sequence. What spurred me to finally document the details of making umeboshi just months before a stroke would render those very details inaccessible in her mind?
My introduction to washoku through Kuniko positioned me to practice a version of home cooking that is quite uncommon in the modern age. She is at the tail end of the last generation who cooked from scratch, a nationwide band of women who strove for economy without concern for convenience.
I’m inclined towards a devotion to beauty and it’s encouraged in Japan. I’m granted permission to consider it essential. If elegance is the only beauty that never fades, as Audrey Hepburn said, then the fine crafts of Japan are elegance defined. Their beauty grows.
Cha-kaiseki, the meal that precedes tea in the tea ceremony, draws on the traditions of home cooking but affords dishes the next level of consideration and offers a perfect model for how to bring simplicity, seasonality, style, and grace to our own tables each and every day.
Kuniko walks each day to the end of the driveway where two slight chestnut trees grow. She gathers as many as she can find at her feet and squirrels them away in her freezer where the meat sweetens until she has enough to cook the nutty yellow bits of chestnuts in rice, a signature taste of fall.
Here in Karatsu the soundtrack to October is haunting, a simultaneously joyful and melancholy refrain practiced in pockets of darkness where boys gather to prepare for our grand festival. These melodic refrains passed by ear from generation to generation.
There is perhaps nothing more simple and divine at the Japanese table than a pristine bowl of snow white shinmai, new rice, to close an autumn meal. Like the wafer at mass, newly harvested rice speaks to the Japanese soul of the divine, of things both eternal and ephemeral.
I never really knew a turnip before moving to Japan. But here they are a staple, hearty but not heavy, starchy and sweet, the exact thing for crossing the bridge into winter. And they’re versatile too, a prized quality in a season when the variety of fresh produce at the market slowly diminishes.
As long as we’ve kept track of time, the day on which we reset the calendar has been celebrated as an occasion for reflection, for mental, physical, and spiritual renewal. With spirit beholden to the past and a heart hopeful for the future, we eat, we drink, and we meet this good New Year.
Japanese cuisine celebrates hazawari, the texture or literally tooth-feel of foods, to which the language is full of words to describe the textural aspect of flavor. Most are onomatopoetic, sounds that simulate physical sensations and the feelings they evoke.
There is so much more I hope to learn, so many more ingredients to meet, methods to practice, and meals to prepare. But I am on the way, steadily treading the right path even if I have a long way still to go. And as I tread, I find beauty in the potential and joy in the anticipation
The hills around here are thick with horsetail and just about every year I stumble onto a new patch. I can now tell you where they emerge first, and on what side of what stretch of road you’ll find the plumpest stalks. But then again, foragers don’t divulge their sources.
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