Midway between the spring equinox and the following solstice, summer begins. From a small patio beside Kuniko’s garage I can survey the orchard. Daidai blossoms broadcast a sweet fragrance into the air. The ground between the citrus and plums has grown unruly, a minefield of azami, thorny wild thistle with spiky lavender blooms. Wisteria and wild thistle in Japan, lilacs in New England, this lavender color marks the turn towards summer. All around the verdant green of adolescent leaves is vivid and rich, still young and clear. The first cicadas are stirring. The sound is so familiar that it’s as though they’ve always been with us and I wonder when they actually first began to cry. The verve of their ratcheting pulse will intensify into the soundtrack of the coming season.
As the days grow warmer, brighter and hazier, the mountains too fill in, thick and wild. Ferns and vines and all manner of prickly things tangle the landscape forcing us out of the hills and into the markets to buy garden produce. Green drops of early summer line the shelves in May, peas of all kinds, snow, snap, and garden, some bedded down in their pods, others shucked loose. They are sweet and tender, the same rainbow of youthful green as the flora all around.
Fresh peas remind me of New England. A bowl of them just shucked and simmered and seasoned with a dab of salty butter on a farmhouse table feels like part of the collective culinary landscape of the region. Here, real warmth is arriving and our need for a hot meal to warm us from the inside is dissipating. A small bowl of a few green peas simmered with kibizato, a powdery, fragrant, and mildly sweet sugar, served cool make for an elegant and comforting appetizer, while lightly seasoned and freshly cooked white rice broadcast with the green orbs bring a certain festivity to the close of a meal.
The first intensely flavorful, sweet, tender peas beg for the least interference which is entirely what the practices of washoku can offer. One of its most fundamental philosophies is perhaps the very thing that sets it apart from so many other regional and national cuisines. Washoku strips away inessentials and places the core essence of an ingredient’s own flavor and character at the forefront. So the origin and condition of ingredients, the freshness, both in terms of seasonality and the swiftness with which it gets from the fields to the kitchen, is of principle concern. This reverence for the ingredient itself drives the cuisine, and its the reason why many farmers, fishermen, brewers, and producers possess the same vision, ingenuity, and intensity as the most celebrated and renowned chefs. As I travel the roads here in this rural, agrarian town I see farmers in their fields, sweating under a hot sun and I’m reminded that the flavor that arrives at the table, the flavor revealed through efforts in the kitchen, it all begins in their hands.
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