The days are growing longer and two doves coo in the evening air as I make my way down to gather a few fragrant fronds from our sansho tree. I fell in love with sansho on my first day in Japan, long before I knew I would come to call this place home. For years I have been dreaming of a little sansho orchard. Back in the kitchen I slap them between two palms to release the fragrance before laying them atop a steamed chawanmushi egg custard alongside preserved sakura buds.
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.
During a midsummer run of high heat in late July known as the doyo, the sun blazes and the cicadas roar. It’s a hot, dry (if you don’t count the humidity) interval between the tsuyu rainy season and stormy August skies seen when turbulent typhoons threaten to roll in. We rely on this clear stretch to set the salted ume out to dry, a process that tenderizes the flesh and softens the outer skins, improving the texture.
The fierce winds of a typhoon brought down a bounty of chestnuts and we gathered baskets full. Most were still green so we let them ripen for several days on the deck. As I waited for the urchin-like casings to crack I researched the many ways I could use such a large harvest and made a list of chestnut focused foods to try. We feasted on chestnuts for well over a week but one dish wowed more than all of the others, kuri no shibukawani, a very Japanese take on marron glacé.
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.
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. Hemp fibers twisted into rope figures adorn the entryways to purify and protect the home. Inside decorations made of rice and boughs and bamboo, each with a meaning tied to agricultural rituals that pray for providence and abundance, are set out for display.
Drawing back a clump of desiccated fronds, I find an emerald trumpet of delicate leaves cradling a cluster of quilted 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.
Cold Watermelon by the Edge of a Salty Sea In Japan Autumn begins in August with a hot, slow slide away from summer. The heat no longer builds but lingers like an oven that’s just been turned off. The cacophonous cry of cicadas crescendoes to a peak. The constant drone of their frenzied roar is […]
Bitter melon is an antidote to the ennui of high summer Goya’s green is as thick and dark and endless as the suffocating green of summer. The bitter melon is fat like a overgrown zucchini with knurled skin and bitter flesh. I haven’t always loved goya, but when I met Tsutomu Sasaki, who grows […]
Beauty must grow from the realities of life I scoop a pile of tea leaves the shape and color of delicate evergreen needles into a glass katakuchi and cover them in ice. Only the rich and clear flavor of ice-drawn green tea can pierce the heat and humidity of high summer. My beloved tools of […]
Finding my way to Washoku The ume have been salted and pressed and sit marinating in their own juice when the heavy rains began. It is the season of tsuyu, the plum rains named for their timing that coincides with ume work. Cold air from the north and warm air from the south lock horns […]
Lining the larder with umeboshi I had only just learned to make umeboshi the year before. Working by Kuniko’s side I scribbled notes on a piece of paper, recording amounts, ratios, timing, and sequence. After so many years, what spark was it that spurred me to finally set myself to this task a mere four […]
Brining and pickling fresh new ginger 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 bins and boxes and jars of every size containing edible specimens preserved in variously colored brines. There are a […]
Sweet, tender peas served cold in syrup 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 […]
The abundance of the moment calls for sansho-ae The burgeoning green hillsides are draped in wild wisteria. The vines cascade from the forest canopy like lavender veils. People flock to see their more regal relatives trained on trellises in parks and public spaces. There you can hear the riotous buzzing of a thousand bees […]
Embracing the viscous textures of washoku At the fist bite of cold in late fall, when all other flowers abandon us, the dear Camellia blooms and ushers us through a long winter. But with the dawn of summer on the horizon, the geese fly north and the Camellia bids us farewell. Gaping blossoms fall whole […]
Wakame salad to celebrate spring I stood on the breakwater at the harbor in Minato, a hamlet along the coast of Karatsu, and watched as Sakamoto san swam towards me through cold March waters. I had come to meet the small band of free-divers who dive here. Karatsu is a coastal town on an outcropping […]