Springtime favorites in Japan only...

Good morning everyone,

We're looking at rain this evening and then on and off again tomorrow before clearing up on Sunday and being sunny and warm for next week. Temperatures all week are similar to those we'd normally experience in mid-June.

We’ve taken a look at what autumn and winter have to offer food-wise in Japan. And now that spring has sprung, it’s time for another list of local foods so you can make sure you don’t miss out on any specialties from this time of year!

That’s why today we’re counting down the top five Japanese spring foods. While spring in Japan delivers some of the same natural goodies that can be found in other parts of the world, there are others that are unique to Japan, with — well — unique tastes of their own.

So let’s get to it! Starting off with…

Honorable Mention: Cabbage/Onions

Cabbage and onions are foods that are eaten year round, hence why they’re only an honorable mention, but it’s at this time of year when they’re at their peak.

Spring cabbages are typically smaller and rounder than ones grown in winter, but they have a softness and sweetness to them that makes them the preferred variety.

Similarly, spring onions are sought after for their distinct soft texture and hint of sweetness to compliment the typical tear-inducing effect and aroma. They can be used in stir-fry, as a meat topping, or as a spring potato side dish.

#5. Springing from the ocean: clams and sea bream

Seasonal foods aren’t just about what’s coming out of the ground. For Japan, where food from the sea has always been just as important, seasonal seafood is just as much a part of spring as anything else.

And spring is the time of year when clams have their spawning season. Around May is when the fun begins, so before then in March and April, they’re busy getting as fat and juicy as possible, making it the perfect time to catch them.

A favorite pastime for Japanese children living near the coast is to go during low tide and grab as many clams as they can in the sand. There are a ton of ways to cook them — steamed, in miso soup, topped on rice or pasta — and one favorite is simply frying in butter.

Spring is the season for tai (“sea bream”), the fish that taiyaki is named after. Similar to clams, their spawning season is May as well, so this is the time of year when they’re at their largest and have the most fat, making spring sea bream prized above all other seasons’.

One other thing that sea bream have going for them at this time of year is that April is the start of the new school year and the month when new hires are usually brought into companies and organizations. Since their Japanese name tai is similar to medetai (“lucky/auspicious”), that makes them a typical sight at school entrance ceremonies or welcome parties for new hires.

#4. Strawberries

Before we get into some of the stranger items on our list, it’s time for one last familiar spring favorite: strawberries.

Even though we said before in top five winter foods that strawberries are a winter favorite (they pop up all the time on Christmas cakes), these rambunctious red fruits are popular enough to warrant them another spot on the this list as well since spring is the season they’re traditionally harvested.

Plus spring is the time of year when you can do one thing with strawberries that you usually can’t do any other time: go strawberry picking.

While there are many different ways to use strawberries in baking, everything from strawberry shortcakes to strawberry-topped waffles, you really just can’t go wrong with just eating a bunch of raw, fresh-picked spring strawberries.

#3. Spring greens: tsukushi and fukinoto

Now we’re getting into some of the uniquely Japan spring foods. If you’ve never heard of either of these two plants before, no worries, but you’re missing out on some distinctly Japanese spring foods.

First up is tsukushi. If you’ve ever seen/read Hana Yori Dango (“Boys Overs Flowers”), then to answer your first question, no, we’re not talking about Tsukushi Makino.

Tsukushi are long, thin plants that taste kind of like mild asparagus. They tend to grow all over the place, and it’s not uncommon for people to just pick it in the wild and bring it home to soak then cook.

The plants do have a shell-like orange/black part to them that needs to be removed though, making them a bit of a pain to prepare, but if you’re going for a Japanese spring feeling in your cooking, you can’t really beat tsukushi. They can be eaten by themselves or mixed into other dishes like stir-fry or salads.

Personally I’m not a huge fan of tsukushi. You can really, really taste the fiber on them. But many Japanese people swear by them, seeing them as a quintessential spring food.

Another common spring green is fukinoto (“butterbur sprouts”).  Like tsukushi, it can be commonly found growing in the wild, just waiting to be picked and cooked. They have an earthy, bitter taste to them, and a very fragrant, spring-like aroma when cooked.

They can be used in a variety of dishes such as soup or pickled fukinoto, but one of the most popular ways is to deep fry them tempura-style. Although to be fair, anything is delicious tempura-style.

Again, I’m personally not a huge fan of fukinoto. Usually what happens when I eat them with Japanese friends is everyone else smiles and says “tastes like spring!” while I just sit there, chewing on the same fibrous piece of the hundredth time, wondering when the spring flavor will finally kick in.

For spring I prefer things with a slightly sweeter edge such as…

#2. Sakura mocha

Next up on the list is another Japan-only favorite, sakura mochi. These flower-flavored sweets are typically eaten during Hina Matsuri on March 3 and during hanami flower-viewing parties in the spring.

▼ They come in the round Kansai variety (like in the photo above),
or the burrito-like Kanto variety (pictured below).

Most of the sakura mochi is similar to other Japanese mochi: it’s a pink-colored rice cake on the outside with sweet bean paste on the inside. But what sets it apart is the sakura leaf it comes wrapped in. While you don’t have to eat the leaf, it’s kind of part of the package.

The sakura mochi itself tastes like typical soft, sweet mochi, and the sakura leaves are kind of like a faint cherry with a twist of sour. It’s an interesting flavor, and you can bet that when spring comes around, just like so many things are suddenly pumpkin spice in the U.S. during autumn, a lot of sweets and snacks in Japan are sakura mochi-flavored. Starbucks, McDonald’s, pie and doughnut shops
all turn a shade pinker in spring.

And the #1 Japanese spring food is…

1. Takenoko

Oh yes, here we are, the big one… literally!

Takenoko are bamboo shoots, the young sprouts of bamboo before they become too big and inedible. Many species of adult bamboo are toxic for human consumption, but while they’re in their sprout-phase, some of them can be safely cooked and eaten.

▼ There are a variety of cooking methods, but one of the most popular is
boiling to remove toxins, then just frying them with herbs and spices.

Image result for takenoko food

Takenoko literally means “bamboo child,” which makes sense considering that’s basically what they are. Depending on the species of bamboo the takenoko are, and how long it’s had to grow, their size can very tremendously.

Takenoko have a good, hearty texture to them. They’re very fibrous, kind of like a rougher carrot. They go well with pretty much everything — rice, soup, sir fry, whatever — but they’re always going to be best when fresh.

▼ And best of all, if you’re not a fan of real takenoko dug up from the ground,
then you can fall back on the anytime-of-year favorite: chocolate takenoko.

Image result for takenoko chocolate

So there you have it, the top five Japanese spring foods. Did I miss any of your spring favorites?

Have a great day!


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