Chrysanthemums symbolize the month of September, the season, and the imperial family in Japan. But mums remind me most of autumn in New England where avid gardeners bring them home to enliven a fading landscape. Here too, we’ve crossed the autumnal equinox and gradually the light and the brilliant hues of summer fade. The air is cooler and my tastes crisper, turning towards the foods of fall, mushrooms, roots, and a deeper shade of greens.
It was an early autumn trip to Kyoto somewhere in my first handful of years in Japan that I found out the florets of Chrysanthemum are edible. Back then, before I got to know the city well, Kyoto felt shrouded in mystery to me, the regal ancient capital and the seat of the finest cuisine served in rooms behind doors one couldn’t enter without a proper introduction. Luckily my father-in-law could get us in a door or two from time to time and on that trip we dined at one of the city’s venerable establishments. The night was pleasant, neither warm nor cold, and a drizzle fell. Attendants offered us disks made of straw to shield us from the rain as we walked on a garden pathway of smooth glistening rocks. I stepped over a stream admiring the surrounding moss, thick and plush and almost bursting with fullness, a green so vibrant yet subdued in the lamplight on that autumn evening. We entered a 400 year old tearoom and sat on the tatami floor. I, the youngest and least important member of our party, sat in the furthest corner. But I was quite pleased with my position as I could gaze out a long narrow opening that ran low along the length of the wall. The shoji screen was pulled back affording a shadowy view of foliage outside. It sparkled and I could hear the sound of droplets falling softly, tap, tap, tap.
Kuniko purchased bundles of chrysanthemum blossoms, known as kiku, in shades of canary yellow and aubergine. She brought them home and as I watched her prepare them I understood their elegance for the first time. Dressed with vinegar in a dish known as sunomono, they brighten the autumn table with an accent of vivid color. The joy of eating kiku lies in the tone and texture. Blanched and brined, they are elastic between the teeth. A tiny dish of petals is a downright regal way to start a meal. And the same vinegar dressed petals can be added to other dishes such as a sautee of shimeji mushrooms and spinach, or served as garnish on a plate of sashimi. For many years I associated chrysanthemum blossoms with Kyoto, an exotic ingredient only to be found in an exotic city, I thought. But deep inside the cavernous hall that houses the Karatsu fish market, a single vegetable stand carries a mountain of specialty items from afar. The proprietress has almost everything imaginable and even if it’s not on display, you can ask and she’ll likely extract just what you’re looking for from somewhere deep within. There, I’ve learned, I can reliably find chrysanthemum blossoms each fall.
Over the years, I’ve learned to distinguish the range of dishes that make up kateryouri, home cooking, and the many forms a single dish can take. I’ve learned which ones are for entertaining, which ones bring the most comfort, and which dishes, like chawanmushi and kiku sunomono, are elegant but manageable, simple but not simplistic. Each time I work with kiku blossoms, I remember that trip to Kyoto followed by a morning in the kitchen with Kuniko. I felt a certain poetry as I watched her hands, rough with age, pluck the delicate florets from the head. Her movements in the kitchen always showed respect and consideration for each ingredient. She taught me that the task of the cook is to find the best way to preserve the pure and fundamental integrity of ingredients while coaxing them into refined and elegant versions of themselves. Cooking, plating, and eating with attention to both flavor and beauty brings a richness of experience and a fullness to life always, but maybe more so than ever in this year of unexpected stillness.
Kiku Sunomono Chrysanthemum Petals