April 5, 2012

Japan Has Always Been About Seasonality

On my recent trip to Japan I was once again enthralled by the joy everyone there takes in the newest produce of the season. American chefs and dedicated eaters like to talk about "seasonality" but in Japan the love for what's at its peak is embedded in the culture. There's even a term, hatsumono, for the first harvest of the season, specifying foods to be delighted in and gorged on for those first days when they are at their peak.

In summer the craze is for first-harvest white peaches, in August for new rice, and in fall for persimmons. When I was there in late March, I saw ichigo daifuku, or azuki bean-filled rice cakes filled with delicious new strawberries everywhere (the strawberries in Japan taste different from U.S. varieties, smaller and more intense in flavor). The country was also starting to vibrate in anticipation of the annual cherry blossom season, which is celebrated in drink, song, blossom-viewing parties and all manner of sakura-themed and -flavored foods.

There was my favorite sakura-mochi, another type of rice cake tinted pink and wrapped in a salty preserved cherry leaf. I had a wonderful, pinkish sakura soba at the luxurious hot springs resort Hakone Ginyu, to which powdered cherry petals had been added. Even Krispy Kreme Japan got into the act, advertising its "Sakura Dozen" doughnuts with pink-tinted icing.

My favorite hatsumono, though were the freshly dug bamboo shoots (takenoko) that appeared everywhere. At once delicate, crunchy and mildly aromatic, new harvest shoots are far superior to the hard, metallic-tasting canned variety. One of the most delicious preparations I tried was at Sakagawa restaurant in Kyoto's Gion district. There, very large rounds were cut into wedges, basted with a tare, or soy-saké-mirin grilling sauce, cooked in front of counter guests over a clay hibachi, then garnished with aromatic kinome (Japanese pepper) leaves.

Buddhist vegetarian feast, with bamboo shoot at upper left.

Then there was the unbelievably fresh bamboo shoot I had as part of this Buddhist vegetarian shōjin ryori lunch at the ancient Zen temple Tenryū-ji. When I complimented the cook, she beamed and told me it was freshly dug.

Look hard, takenoko in upper right-hand corner!

Takenoko  showed up in my Japanese -style breakfast at the Westin Miyako hotel, in a warm crock of simmered tofu (yudōfu). 

Easy to spot here.

Finally, there was this lovely, steaming bowl of simply prepared soup at the kaiseki restaurant Jiki Miyazawa: a clear broth with wakame seaweed and beautful bamboo shoots, garnished with the ubiquitous kinome leaf.

Now I'm hankering to visit Japan in the fall, to enjoy a whole different set of hatsumono.  


No comments:

Post a Comment