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 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 […]
Hijiki offers a taste of home Koo, my sister-in-law, lived in the south of France for many years and has always been our resident expert on all things deliciously French. She would bring us cheese, wine, cured meats, salt, bread, jams olive oil, and butter. Her soufflé on special occasions was always quickly devoured. But […]
The final days of foraging fukinoto Strong night winds disturb the calm and through fitful sleep I hear rains begin in the dark of morning. I wake to a thick white curtain of mist that erases the view. Showers wash away the bland browns of winter. The soaked branches of the bud laden magnolia and […]
The first day of spring and foraging With the warmth of the wood stove at my back, I gaze out the window. Below me the broad roofs of Hanako’s studio to the right and my mother-in-law Kuniko’s house to the left stretch like the wings of the cheeky ravens that often perch upon their peaks. […]
An album of food memories Spring erupted prematurely with a vigor that felt almost desperate, as though the earth were breaking from the shackles of winter and running for its life. But it’s been said that perceptions reveal more about the observer than the observed. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling bound, shackled by […]
A prayer to humbly receive Each day dawns a bit warmer, burns a bit brighter, and lasts a bit longer than the one that came before. How grateful we are to be tilted towards the sun again. Spring sprints forward and she waits for no one. She’s on a mission to plaster the hillsides in […]
The dance of utensils, vessels, and food There is a pervading image of the Japanese table laden with small plates and bowls, each place set with individual servings of each course in its own small dish. Not quite as many appear at our table, and certainly never so many at once. The special relationship between […]
Bringing a wild harvest to the table The stately magnolia in the yard tracks the length of the night, the temperature of the air and the humidity of the soil around its roots, and when all is right the buds split and fat white petals unfold. This tree better indicates the season’s progress than any […]