Japan marks seasonal changes with rituals, customs, events, and culinary specialties like no other country.
On a recent family trip to Tokyo we arrived in time to see an astonishingly beautiful display of late cherry blossoms. The first of the sakura had bloomed two or three weeks before and their pale petals had drifted down to cover the streets and float in the waterways. But in centrally located Shinjuku Gyoen park, grassy spaces were filled with family groups enjoying the thousand-year-old flower-viewing ritual of hanami. Take-out feasts are bought at food halls of the many large department stores, long queues form to enter the park and picnic spots are claimed under the blossoming trees. Mats are laid out, shoes removed and spring is enthusiastically celebrated.
When I travel, my first stop is always a farmers’ market to discover the seasonal fare.
The Saturday morning United Nations University market near Tokyo’s upmarket Omotesando district had stalls filled with hefty bamboo shoots, delicate spring herbs, thin stalks of spring rhubarb, ramps, asparagus spears, bright green fava beans, early shallots and pale onions.
The following weekend we visited the picturesque town of Kamakura, where I spied an array of early cropping cauliflower and broccoli sprouts and saito, an early Japanese potato-like tuber. Those seasonal foods we encountered appeared at almost every meal we ate.
Japanese food is delicate. The current restaurant trend of small sharing plates was probably invented in Japan. A dish of soba noodles infused with dried cherry blossom leaves and topped with shreds of pink petals really shouted out “spring” to me. There were bamboo shoots with everything: atop our rice, cut into strips for salads, braised with pork and deep fried in tempura batter.
Seafood, too, changes with the seasons. One dish of spring shrimp and rice was as pretty as any picture, and we enjoyed the tiniest of squid, baby herrings, sweet crab, and clams so small you could hardly see them.
Our sushi experiences were the standout. One of life’s great luxuries if you enjoy fresh fish is to sit at the counter of a small exclusive sushi restaurant and spend an hour or two being hand-fed by a master of sushi. Course after course of the most delicate and exquisitely cut fish is served and is a far cry from most of what we can experience in New Zealand.
I missed Japan so much on my return, in the first week back I went to my two favourite Japanese restaurants.
Kazuya is a tiny place in Auckland’s Symonds St where chef Kazuya Yamauchi cooks European food influenced by his former position in a large hotel in Tokyo. The service, presentation, seasonality, delicacy and almost everything else about the place is distinctly Japanese.
My other favourite is Cocoro in Brown St, Ponsonby. Chef Makoto Tokuyama is passionate about fresh seafood and creates stunning traditional Japanese dishes that always play on current seasonal fare.
It is Autumn here, so I took an idea from Cocoro’s seasonal menu as inspiration for the first recipe. Persimmons make a great companion for fresh salmon as a starter. You could always use slices of cold smoked salmon for this dish.
SALMON SASHIMI IN PERSIMMON CUPS
250g fresh salmon
2 tsp soy sauce
1 orange, juice and finely grated zest
2 tsp shredded Japanese pickled ginger
2 tsp finely chopped chervil
4 tsp salmon roe
Slice the top from the persimmons and put aside. Carefully remove the flesh from each fruit, and chop into small even dice.
Slice the salmon very thinly and place in a bowl with the persimmon dice, soy sauce, orange juice and zest, pickled ginger and chervil.
Toss very gently and divide the mixture into four. Place each serving in the hollowed out persimmons and top with the salmon roe and an extra sprig of chervil.
Wine match: Japanese sake
SOBA NOODLES, SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS AND DASHI BROTH
8 fresh shiitake mushrooms
2 tbsp vegetable oil
4 tsp chives
1 square of nori
300g organic dried soba noodles
4 tsp Japanese pickled ginger
300ml dashi stock (see recipe below)
Slice the mushrooms very finely. Heat the oil in a small frying pan and over a gentle heat sauté the mushrooms for 5 minutes until they soften.
Chop the chives into small rounds. Toast the nori by waving over a gas flame quickly so it becomes crisp, then slice into matchsticks with a very sharp knife. Slice the ginger thinly.
Cook the soba noodles in boiling water until tender but still firm (about 5 minutes.) Drain and keep warm. To assemble, divide the soba into four heated bowls. Place the slices of mushroom on top and sprinkle with chives, nori and ginger.
Pour heated dashi broth into each dish and serve immediately.
Wine match: Japanese sake.
Dashi is the flavoursome stock that is one of the most important building blocks of Japanese cuisine. A key ingredient in miso soup and almost all other Japanese broths, it is simple to make, best when made fresh but can be refrigerated for a day or two. Buy the ingredients from Japanese stores and supermarkets, or substitute a very good fish stock.
15cm length kombu (dried Japanese seaweed)
2 cups (500ml) filtered water
4 tbsp dried bonito shavings (katsuobushi)
Place the kombu in a medium saucepan with the water and bring to simmering point. Remove the kombu and discard.
Throw in the bonito and simmer gently for 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to stand for 8 minutes.
Set a small fine-mesh strainer over a measuring cup and pour the dashi through to remove the bonito flakes.
Makes about 300ml.
A GENUINE JAPANESE MISCELLANY
Sachie Nomura, a Japanese cook with an Asian cooking school in Parnell, Auckland, has collected her family favourites and combined them with some of her own original recipes in her new book Sachie’s Kitchen (Harper Collins, $49.99.) It is a miscellany of Japanese information, with plenty of personal insights into Japanese culture and rituals and helpful information on this unique cuisine.
The recipes are as varied as the Japanese diet, with lots of helpful instructions and illustrations, and almost every recipe is accompanied by great photographs taken by Tamara West. The book is pitched perfectly for New Zealanders wanting to cook genuine Japanese food and discover the flavours and techniques needed.