Autumn in Japan means...good food!
It's going to be a nice day today, with a high of 25C and tomorrow is looking the same before clouding over on Sunday and there's a good chance of rain on Monday. Then it looks like all of next week will be back to the nice fall weather-in fact, it may be a bit warmer than it has been this week.
In Japan, autumn is known as shokuyoku no aki (“autumn of appetite”) meaning that once those leaves start turning colors and the harvests start coming in, it’s time to load your face with some delicious food. There may not be much pumpkin spice, apple cider, gingerbread, or pecan pie in Japan (foods we associate with autumn back home), but there are plenty of other foods perfect for those crisp autumn days.
That’s why this week we’re counting down the top five Japanese autumn foods, so you won’t get caught making any fall faux-pas by eating out-of-season foods or missing out on limited-time treats.
So let’s get to it! Starting off with…
#5. Purple foods: eggplant (茄子 nasu) and sweet potato (さつまいも satsuma imo)
What is considered seasonal food has a lot to do with what is harvested at that time, and in Japan autumn is the time when eggplant and sweet potatoes are popping up out of the ground by the barrel-full.
Not only does that mean they’re at their peak ripeness and deliciousness, but they’re also cheaper than usual due to how plentiful they are, making them autumn staples.
Eggplant in particular is thought of as a “cooling off” food in Japan, perfect for that transition from the sweltering summer into the not-quite-hot but not-quite-cold autumn. In fact eggplant is seen as such an autumn delicacy that there’s a particularly horrible saying in Japanese that goes like this: Aki nasu wa yome ni kuwasu na (“Don’t let your wife eat autumn eggplant”), which means that autumn eggplant are so good it would be a waste to let your wife eat them and not gobble them up yourself. I can't speak from experience, but I'm pretty sure that actually saying that to your wife would NOT be a good idea...ha ha!
#4. Tastes like money: matsutake mushrooms (松茸 matsutake)
Ah yes, autumn is in the air and it smells like matsutake mushrooms – a unique blend of spice, fruit, pine, and of course, cold hard cash.
Matsutake mushrooms are one of the most expensive autumn indulgences. These guys don’t just pop up on the local mushroom farm; they have never been domesticated and need to be gathered by hand in the wild.
They’re only found growing under fallen leaves in pine tree forests (their name literally means “pine mushroom”), and due to pine trees being under attack by the pine-eating nematode, the mushrooms have become even scarcer over the past fifty years. All those factors contribute to the matsutake mushroom’s legendary status as the ultimate autumn treat. Just having one shaved on top of rice or meat is a delicacy. It's about Y10,000 for a large Japanese one, although you can get Chinese for 'only' Y1,980. If you ask me, even $20 is expensive for a mushroom...
#3. Autumn in the ocean: Pacific saury (さんま sanma)
The Pacific saury is so autumn it even has the kanji for autumn in the Japanese spelling of its name: 秋刀魚 (there it is, the first kanji!). But why is the Pacific saury considered such a big part of autumn when there’s not even any colored leaves in the ocean? One reason: migration season.
Autumn is the time when Pacific saury migrate from the ocean around Japan’s northern area of Hokkaido down to warmer southern waters. When they travel en masse past the central island Honshu, catching them is easier than, well, shooting fish in a barrel.
Similar to eggplant and sweet potatoes, not only are Pacific saury more plentiful and cheaper at this time of year, but they are also at their peak maturity and have double the amount of meat and fat that they had in the summer. That one-two punch of abundance and deliciousness makes them a fall-time favorite.
#2. Feeling squirrely: chestnuts (栗 kuri)
Ah yes, autumn – the season of nuts. When all those delicious chestnuts fall from the trees, dent our cars, and squirrels stuff their cheeks with them in preparation for winter. Those squirrels are doing something right though, because we humans take after them every year when we shove as many nuts as we can into our own faces.
And it’s no different in Japan. Autumn is the time for chestnuts, which begin their harvest season in September and reach their peak in October. They add a meaty, rich sweetness to foods and are included in lots of desserts.
And the #1 most autumn Japanese food is…
1. New rice (新米 shinmai)
What? Isn’t rice the first thing that comes to mind when then you think of fall?
If you’re outside of Japan, then probably not. But for Japanese people nothing says autumn more than “new rice.”
And “new rice” isn’t just any old rice. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture has rules set that rice can only be sold as new rice if it was put up for sale in the same year that it was harvested. Since rice is harvested in autumn, that’s when all the fresh batches of new rice get put out with their red labels to the grocery stores, and everybody scrambles to get the newest of the new rice.
Rice aficionados will tell you that new rice is very different from your typical rice. The grains have more moisture to them, making them softer, stickier, more fragrant, and even have a stronger flavor. Others claim that they can’t really taste the difference, but those are probably the same kind of people who say apple cider tastes like apple juice so forget them!
So there you have it, the top five Japanese autumn foods according to...well, me. Are there any that you would have include instead?
Have a great day!