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.
The body is soothed and the soul is stirred Ten months ago, after years of wise guidance by my mother-in-law, a devoted practitioner of elegant and pragmatic home cooking, I took a leap and began studying Japanese cuisine at the next level in earnest with Tsuchiya san, a family friend and former chef at Robata […]
Making onigiri is an intimate act I stood in Kuniko’s pantry and pulled a jar of umeboshi from the shelf. I removed a dozen or so from the jar and began prying the soft flesh away from the pits. I popped one in my mouth. It was mouth-puckering sour though pleasant, the saltiness pronounced but […]
I too would be more tempted by a sultry fig On the Autumnal equinox a full harvest moon rose due east outside our window. It was a welcome reunion after endless cloudy, starless nights. She cast her wise and benevolent light far and wide, wrapping everything in a warm, shadow filled glow. She brought with […]
Shinshoga new ginger The road out of summer took a clear turn towards fall this past week. An afternoon rain left not cool but cold air in its wake. As we rise we sleepily murmur of bringing warmer bedding out of storage. Days are quieter as the steady vibrato of crickets replaces the shrill whir […]
A shapeless season It was a restless night, storms rolling through one after another, lightning flashing bright enough to penetrate closed eyelids and wake me. Rain poured down, its low roar on the roof perforated by the slap of water pelting pebbles outside the bedroom window. It finally calmed just before dawn and I slipped […]
A harmonious table setting An August storm charges in with a battle cry. Lightening fractures a thick sky and thunder roars. I hear the sirens on the hilltop golf course behind the house shrieking for all to take cover. The wind whips the trees as a downpour begins. I stand at the door as heavy […]
It’s a fine time to make home your haven Soft clouds float by like a flock of sheep grazing in the wild blue yonder. I spot a small bamboo tray on Kuniko’s balcony that holds a few carrot peels drying in the sun. This is her admirable thrift, her equal regard for elegance and economy […]
A very Japanese take on marron glacé 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 […]
Cooking with chrysanthemum petals 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 […]
Savory eggplant to welcome autumn My love of autumn quells the sorrow of summer passing. In the pink glow of a lean morning the raspy coo of doves opens the day, while the pulse of cicadas brings it to a close, urging us into the the gloaming. A week ago today we were preparing for […]