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.
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 […]
A kombu appetizer to open any meal As the sun sinks behind our hill, the collective cry of cicadas swells to a crescendo before fading with the light. We are allowed a moment of quiet in the gloaming before the gentle reverberation of crickets’ wings start pulsing through the late evening air. These days a […]
Celebrating shiso at the apex of summer We are at the apex of summer, which in Japan is already deemed to be the start of autumn. This is the custom here, to look ahead with anticipation towards the beauty held within the bud rather than be reminded by a flower in full bloom of its swift […]
A bowl of perfectly cooked grains of rice is a subtle marvel A kettle of water is set to boil. All dishes are cleared and rinsed and and then we set the table a second time with three dishes, a bowl of rice, a cup of houjicha roasted green tea, and a small plate for […]
Newly harvested rice speaks to the Japanese soul of the divine In the waning glow of autumn the rice fields yellow with age. Paddies are drained in preparation for the harvest and the seed grains begin to dry on the stalk. Flaxen tassels sway in the autumn breeze amidst fields of golden grasses, a sight […]
Shriaae, A Thick, Light Tofu Dressing for Autumn 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. There is no written musical notation for these melodic refrains passed by ear from generation to generation over […]
Gathering Chestnuts is a Ritual of Autumn A storybook moon hangs low in the sky as though tethered by a thread to Venus. But only a sliver, its pure light shines unusually bright. These days mist crawls in overnight and morning grasses glisten in the slanting rays of the rising sun. Though summer insects still […]
Tea Ceremony and the Art of the Daily Meal I remember a decade back, when I still knew relatively little about Japanese cuisine, I asked Kuniko to describe a cha-kaiseki meal that precedes tea in the tea ceremony. She outlined the general styles of dishes. She described the first small portion of rice and miso […]