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.
East meets west in an orange tree When I arrived in Mirukashi, untethered by words or customs to the culture, I plunged my hands into the earth in an effort to ground myself. I tried to tame the wild mountainside and to garden in the hard, red clay to little avail and so instead turned […]
Celebrating the New Year For the New Year’s holiday the fishmonger supplies plump, large red snapper. Red snapper is celebratory, with red and white flesh the symbolic colors of celebration. We always order one and savor it over a few days and in many ways. On the first we celebrate with sashimi. On the second […]
An ornamental tree There will never be a white Christmas in Mirukashi. If we get snow it comes only in flurries and dustings that don’t stick. But I consider the kaki trees my consolation. Driving the country roads, it seems the hills are dressed for the holidays, the dull winter landscape bedecked with persimmon-jeweled trees. I […]
Chasing away the chill We’ve crested the peak of autumn’s colors and outside the landscape has submitted to the inevitability of winter. Leaves have faded and fallen. Winds blow in from the North and bring with them a biting chill. When the temperatures drop I’m plagued by an internal shiver with only three potential remedies, […]
Indulging a craving for richer foods One day the air takes a turn towards cold. We pull out sweaters, install a woolen throw on the arm of the couch, and there you have it, cold weather mode begins. As the days shorten we become reacquainted with darkness and senses other than sight engage. We grow more […]
Mukago are a delicious entertainment It’s that time of year when you can bake in the sun and shiver in the shade. It’s hard to regulate our temperatures. Layers of clothing are thrown on and cast off throughout the day. A wind felt neither as warm nor cold rattles the screens and leaves flutter to […]
In the end, a new beginning I immediately recognized in Kuniko the essence of the woman who nourished equally her guests, her family, and herself. Her meals brought such joy to everyone at the table, myself included, and I was eager to absorb everything she could offer. She represented a holy grail of cookery, a […]
Winter radish and roots salt pickle salad In an archipelago of islands surrounded by vast seas, it’s no wonder salt is such an essential ingredient in Japanese cuisine. It’s a key ingredient within key ingredients, including soy and miso. It’s used to draw out moisture and plump the flesh of fish before preparing sashimi. And […]
Yubeshi: winter cured savory citrus The solstice has passed and though the shift feels incremental, our trajectory points towards the light again. A gift of this darkest time of year is the beauty of the sunrise. Mornings open late and its easy to be up before the sun crests the distant mountains outside my window. […]
The first snow and salted cabbage Today the first snowflakes fell. We’ll never get a white Christmas here like the holidays of my childhood in Vermont, but still, celebrating Christmas is one of the few inherently Western customs I’ve firmly installed in our life in Japan. My New England roots kick in, I grab a […]