The Four Seasons of Japanese Food
January 19, 2017
Japan has four very distinct seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter. Each season has characteristics that are deeply rooted in the lifestyle of Japanese people, whether it relates to activities, traditions or foods. The distinctive climate of Japan’s four seasons also means that there are certain foods that can only be savored for a very short time. The Japanese word ‘shun’ designates the ingredients that are in their prime season at specific times of the year. Therefore, the seasonality of these foods is often celebrated, in small or big ways. This attention to seasonal foods and associated cultural traditions is unique to Japan, and everyone can partake in the enjoyment and excitement of this fleeting concept.
As the seasons change in Japan, so does the landscape and the food. Seasonal motifs are incorporated into Japanese arts and crafts, and the ingredients available at markets reflect the changing seasons, adding some delight and vivid colors to everyday life. Seasonal foods are meant to be enjoyed with all the senses - not only with the taste buds, but also with the eyes. Here are some notable seasonal foods for each season in Japan.
Photo by Vivian Morelli
Spring is all about new beginnings: it’s the start of the school year and the new business cycle, and flowers are blooming. Japanese spring brings milder weather, pink cherry blossoms buds, and flower-viewing festivals called hanami. It is customary to bring food to hanami, in order to have picnics under the beautiful pink trees. People can either prepare a bento box, or pick one up at the basement floors of department stores, called depachika. These vast food halls sell beautiful bentos prepared with seasonal ingredients, and in spring those often include vegetables such as fuki (Japanese sweet coltsfoot), takenoko (bamboo shoot), rape blossom, fatsia sprouts, spring cabbage and fresh onions. Asari gohan (clam rice) is a common item in bento boxes in the spring. For dessert, strawberry or sakura (cherry blossom) themed treats are very popular, displaying pretty shades of pink.
Photo by Vivian Morelli
Japanese summer is known for its sweltering temperatures, lively matsuri (festivals) and colorful fireworks. People dress up in yukata (traditional cotton robes) and head out to local festivals to enjoy the magical atmosphere and the tasty foods served at yatai (stalls). After the rainy season in June, the temperatures start to rise and the humid heat makes people long for refreshing dishes. Somen is one of them: very thin noodles are served cold and dipped in a light, skipjack shaving-based dipping sauce, topped with leeks and ginger. Another popular dish is hiyashi-chuka, or cold ramen, in which chilled noodles are served with assorted vegetables, kinshi tamago (thin omelet) and ham. It cools the body down while keeping the stomach full. Unagi, or eel, is served year-round, but grilled unagi is especially good in summer, as it gives a lot of stamina to survive the heat. Watermelon is the best sweet treat to quench thirst, and kakigori (shaved ice covered with flavored syrup) is especially popular at matsuri.
Autumn is perhaps the most comfortable season in Japan, bringing refreshing breezes and crisp sunny days, a welcome respite following the scorching summer days. The colors of the tree leaves start changing, and this event is called koyo. The changing leaves can be enjoyed by taking long walks or hikes in nature to view the stunning hues, an activity known as momijigari. Just like in spring, people rarely go on an outdoor outing without bentos filled with seasonal foods. Some ingredients typically associated with fall are kuri (chestnut), which can be cooked in rice or used to fill cakes and confectionary, and a fish called sanma, or Pacific saury, which is at its peak in autumn. It is usually grilled and salted, and it tastes particularly good when served with grated daikon radish. Matsutake mushrooms are sought-after and very expensive, and another delicacy in the fall. And for the moon viewing festival in September, people like to eat rice cakes while watching what they believe looks like a rabbit making rice cakes on the moon.
Finally winter arrives with significantly colder temperatures, and snow in some parts of Japan. People often like to stay in the comfort of their homes and lead a low-key lifestyle to avoid the cold weather. Traditionally, families gather around their kotatsu, a low table with a heating element underneath and covered with a quilt to keep the warmth in. In winter, nabe (hot pot) dishes are often eaten, as they can be shared in a convivial atmosphere. Practically any ingredient can be used in nabe, such as vegetables, meat, and seafood, making it an easy and convenient meal to cook. Oden is another popular hot pot dish, and it consists of several ingredient such as boiled eggs, daikon, konnyaku, and fish cakes stewed in a light broth. Oden is even available at convenience stores across the country, for a quick warming meal. Buri, or yellowtail, is a kind of fish that can be cooked teriyaki style or stewed. One popular way to serve it is with simmered daikon. And nothing beats the sweet and tangy taste of mikan, usually known as mandarin oranges outside of Japan, to nibble on after a meal, or midday for a boost of energy.
Where to Find Seasonal Foods
Just by visiting a local supermarket, it’s easy to see which ingredients are currently in season, as they are prominently displayed and often offered on sale. Many Japanese families cook meals using seasonal foods, which are at their best and freshest. In Japanese restaurants that serve the haute cuisine called kaiseki, chefs meticulously prepare aesthetically pleasing dishes infused with a seasonal feel. Bringing out the natural flavors of the ingredients are very important parts of this style of cuisine, which means that various seasonal offerings are often used for the menu. Traditional confectionary shops also closely follow the seasons, creating handmade delicate works of art that represent nature’s beauty. Lastly, in many cafes and convenience stores across the country, seasonal creations such as sweets or salty snacks are offered for a limited time only, which makes them even more coveted.
Text: Vivian Morelli