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.
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 […]
Spent ume and red shiso sorbet We sleep with every window thrown open wide in hopes that the cool evening air will fill the house by morning. The nights are quiet but for a few crickets and the occasional owl hooting into a dark sky. But come daybreak the cicadas fire up and scream at […]
The perfect ume jam A basket of ripe ume perfumes the house with the scent of apricots. Their soft fuzzy skins a shade of sunny yellow flushed pink at the shoulders like fair skin that’s been in the sun too long. Ume, the fruits of the Prunus mume tree, are known in English as Chinese […]
Salty, sweet, or spiked When Kuniko moved from Ryutagama to Mirukashi, on the other side of the same hill, she took her ume plum trees with her. Two would be sufficient. She was 67, retired, and years beyond her former life as career homemaker feeding three children plus numerous guests packed around a 10-foot long table each night. She […]
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 […]
The birth of spring on the tongue My memories of Mirukashi begin in this season, with the first foray to gather fukinoto just weeks after moving into our new house up the hill from Kuniko. I was so completely taken with the little green buds we found that day that I followed Kuniko into the […]
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 […]
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 […]
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 […]