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.
Barracuda, big leaf magnolia, & sansho I am often asked what my favorite Japanese food is. I couldn’t possibly answer adequately. There are too many wonderful dishes. But I could say, without hesitation, that my favorite flavor is sansho. Be it kinome, the leaves, or sansho berries, the Japanese prickly ash tree produces flesh of primal […]
Treasures of mountain and sea There is fullness, a slowing down and settling in as spring gives way to summer. The frenzied pace of growth relaxes and days linger with us later. A keyhole through the black pines, mountain cherries, and angelica trees that grow behind the house allows a few piercing rays of the […]
A shiso laced ume sorbet looks like heaven on a spoon 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 […]
Somen on ice for a sultry summer The rains clear leaving a steaming cauldron in their wake. The sun burns brightly stalling any breeze that might whisper some small reprieve. Young hawks take flight, learning to soar through the hot summer skies. The heavy rains followed by sun has spurred a burst of growth and […]
Ice brewed shincha for summer If June was any indication, we are in for a sultry summer. Alternating rounds of torrential rains that fall in this tsuyu rainy season and bright sun that vaporizes the gathered moisture bring on riotous thunder storms. Bolts strike alarmingly close to our hilltop home. On these muggy days a […]
Loquats are the sweet pleasure of June June is a month of sweet pleasures. After the hustle of staying warm all winter long, and the sprint through spring, we slow down at the start of June, if not in body, at least in mind. This season feels sweetly languorous with light that lasts so long […]
I would like nothing more than to cook all day After so many years living in this same rural corner of Kyushu, I still stumble upon sights I’ve never seen before. A wrong turn on a drive to a nearby town took me down a narrow country lane. Camel colored fields stretched into the distance […]
As long as there is rice and Japanese pickles I stand on the veranda outside Kuniko’s kitchen looking across the treetops towards the facing hillside. The viridescence of spring is deepening into a concentrated and uniform shade. Kuniko hovers in the doorway. The green is thickening, she says. Soon it will grow heavy, as opaque […]