In an archipelago of islands surrounded by vast seas, it’s no wonder salt is such an essential ingredient in Japanese cuisine. Salt has saved many a leftover daikon radish or turnip peel from the compost bin and given culinary purpose winter’s array of roots. In winter we sometimes long for a dose of raw vegetables but few options abound. A salt pickle salad of black radish, watermelon radish, daikon radish, or even kohlrabi or celeriac can be just the helping of fibrous crunch we crave.
Drawing back a clump of desiccated fronds, I find an emerald trumpet of delicate leaves cradling a cluster of button like buds. I raise the dirty, wet stem to my nose and drink in the earthy, pungent aroma of spring breaking from winter. This is fukinoto.
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.
Micro-seasons overlap and in each we find something on its way in, something fully arriving, and something waning. With a single ingredient we can trace three stages and its subtle shift in flavor as it comes into, passes through, and goes out of season.
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.
A yuzu fruit contains many large seeds and only a little juice, mellow and citrusy like a cross between mandarin orange and meyer lemon. While in season, we use the juice to dress vegetables and salads. But the fragrant peel deserves most of the attention.
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.
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...
Summer has felt slow to arrive, but that’s just my impatience speaking. Finally the first warm night of the year arrived on the eve of May. I opened the window and felt the nighttime air on my skin void of chill for the first time. With the balm comes an early summer symphony. From terraced rice fields are flooded in preparation for planting, the guttural call of mating frogs reverberates throughout the valley. The air vibrates with the...
Kuniko hovers in the doorway. The green is thickening, she says. Soon it will grow heavy, as opaque and oppressive as the heat, she concludes, turning back into the kitchen to prepare tsukemono, the daily pickles. I follow her in, the tile floor so much cooler against my bare feet than the sun baked concrete outside. She removes the lid and a white cloth covering her tokozuke pot and reaches a hand in. She has tended the same pickling pot for longer than I’ve known her. It is her comrade in the kitchen...
Though I arrived more or less by happenstance, I often feel it was fated that I come to Japan. I immediately felt a deep resonance, captivated from the start by the broad and tangible relationship to the natural world that flows through the spiritual, aesthetic, and culinary practices here. The rhythms of daily life encourage balance between the needs and desires of humans and the powerful forces of nature that daily render blessings and affliction.
A biwa tree grows in the shade of giant black pines at the edge of our backyard orchard where it struggles for light. Beyond the sheer succulence of their color and juicy flesh, loquat eaves are medicinal, high in citric acid, and can be dried and made into a cool summer tea to drink as an antidote to heat and fatigue. A compress of boiled leaves has long been a folk remedy to treat sweat rash, an inevitable irritation of the skin in the humid heat of summer.
If June is any indication, we are in for a sultry summer. Alternating rounds of torrential rains that fall in this tsuyu rainy season and bright sun that vaporizes the gathered moisture bring on riotous thunder storms with bolts that strike alarmingly close to our hilltop home. On these muggy days a shot of shincha, the year’s fragrant newly harvested first crop of tea, brewed with ice, cuts through with a moment of cool clarity.
Summer is full of long days but the season as a whole is fleeting. As we hover at the threshold of major heat, interest in food wanes. We don’t crave satiety so much as an antidote to a pervading lethargy. It is too hot to think and summer suffocates culinary inspiration, so many a lunch is made of thin, smooth, slippery somen on a bed of ice.
The ume are particularly beautiful this year. “When it comes to umeboshi, nothing is set in stone,” Kuniko has often told me. “You make it one way one year and another way another year. You decide what you like and make it to your own taste.” After years of experimentation, this year’s batch is likely to be my personal formula going forward as the dusty rose hue is just exquisite.
The shiso pickled together with umeboshi is called tsukejiso and after its done its duty staining the umeboshi and sealing it in throughout the long journey to maturity, there are wonderful uses for the ume infused salty herb. I dry it in the sun for a day or two and grind it up to make a shiso salt called yukari. It’s a fresh alternative, with tart undertones, that adds a summery salinity to summer vegetables, picnic onigiri, cocktail rims, and much more.
Daily meals in Japan start with dashi. Kuniko can be sparse with her praise, but she’ll often praise my dashi which, after all, I learned to make from her. The konbu flavor whispers more than shouts. Jouhin, she’ll say, calling it elegant. That light, delicate, clear taste - that perfect extraction and presentation of an ingredient’s purest elements - that’s jouhin. She adores a broth that offers its flavors but doesn’t insist upon them, discernible but not conspicuous.
I have eaten eggplant, called nasu here, in the most delicious ways, deep fried as tempura, fried and then simmered in fine broth, picked with cucumber, ginger, and myoga in shibazuke. But one of my favorites is the way Hanako often makes it, grilled to melt-in-the-mouth perfection, peeled, dressed, and garnished with scallion and katsuobushi flakes. Simple, elegant, and delicious, the trifecta that defines good food.
Chrysanthemums symbolize the month of September, the season, and the imperial family in Japan. But mums remind me most of autumn in New England where avid gardeners bring them home to enliven a fading landscape. Here too, we've crossed the autumnal equinox and gradually the light and the brilliant hues of summer fade. The air is cooler and my tastes crisper, turning towards the foods of fall, mushrooms, roots, and a deeper shade of greens.
I find chestnuts particularly seductive, the prickly jacket that bursts to reveal smooth glossy shells, the rich eponymous color and strong lines of their gentle curves. Most confections rely on extractions and concentrations of flavor but shibukawani preserves the chestnut in its whole and elegant form, which I find most appealing.
Like any one of us, Kuniko might let a vegetable languish too long in the fridge and find it limp and withered. But unlike so many of us, her faith in it never wavers. A wilting eggplant, turnip tops, daikon skins, all of these end up in her tokozuke (fermented rice bran) pot and later at the table in an uncommonly beautiful array of tsukemomno pickles.
The season of new rice coincides with a myriad of gifts from the wild that pair perfectly with the sweet nuttiness of new rice – ginko nuts from trees with emblematic fan shaped leaves in a dazzling shade of yellow, mukago tubers dangling from jungly wild mountain yam vines that seem to thin to hold their weight, and mushrooms galore, including the most prized of all growing under cover on the forest floor, matsutake.
Festive persimmons ripen just in time for the holidays. In a season when we set the table with more substantial fare, this salad of persimmon and chrysanthemum greens ressed with a silken blend of yuzu, light sesame oil, a splash of light soy and a sprinkle of salt is a lovely and lively compliment.
Hakusai tsukemono has become one of my all time favorite Japanese pickles and a firm culinary tradition in our house. Every year, when I can find a fat, heavy, tightly headed cabbage for under 200 yen, I know it’s time for winter pickles. Pickles bring vegetables to the table at a time when few are to be found fresh and making hakusai shiozuke is the simplest of endeavors, really.
Each day throughout the month of December, these citrus shells stuffed with miso and nuts have bathed in the winter sunlight, curing in the cold air until leather hard, ready to slice and eat. Yubeshi are prepared at the peak of the yuzu season, as November becomes December, to be ready in time for New Years. These savory citrus slices accompanied by celebratory sips of sake open the first meals of the New Year in the most fragrant, flavorful, and festive way.
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