Everyone has heard about haiku, the Japanese micro-poems defined by their 17 syllables. But few in the West know that the other defining feature of a haiku is a seasonal reference: just a word to ground the poem in the cycle of the year.
A deep awareness of seasonality is a defining part of Japanese culture: a marker of elegance and sophistication that runs across many spheres of life. Just as a poem cannot be a haiku if it isn’t clearly situated in one of the four seasons, and a personal letter must always start with a seasonal reference, a true Japanese meal must be grounded in its season.
This, I think, is a good rule of thumb for judging a Japanese restaurant. Just ask yourself: how much does the menu change along with the seasons? If the menu is fixed and unchanging year-round, then it isn’t truly Japanese.
A proper Japanese chef will place a big premium on seasonal ingredients. In his hands, you will eat what he finds at the moment, when it’s freshest and tastiest. But eating seasonally is about more than just taste: it’s about deepening your awareness of the here and now, about building a deep texture into your life that goes hand-in-hand with the progression of the cycles of nature. These ideas sound esoteric when written them in English, but to us Japanese, they’re just common sense rooted in our culture and history. In earlier times, there was even a folk belief that each time you ate a food at the very beginning of its harvest, you added 75 days to your lifespan!
Even Japanese convenience stores—which are nobody’s idea of high cuisine—nod to seasonality with specialties such as oden hotpot starting in September. And have you ever heard of potato chips made with new potatoes? They’re a big autumn hit in Japan. The food marketers have caught on that Japanese shoppers just can’t resist the words “season limited” on a package. Even McDonald’s has gotten in on the action, marketing a seasonal Tsukimi Burger—or “autumn moon-watching burger”—year after year.
It’s easy to laugh off these trends, but they’re founded on a very real, and very deep strain of our culture. Take our fixation with “new rice,” the first of the rice harvested each autumn. New rice is considered softer, whiter and shinier—that is to say, better—than “old rice,” (that is, rice reaped more than one year ago.)
Of course, rice in Japan is more than a staple food; it’s shot through with ritual meanings. We eat rice all year round, of course, but autumn is the time to appreciate the subtle aroma of freshly picked rice. Usually the period during which you can call rice “new” lasts from the autumn harvest through December. So if you see have the chance to try “new rice” before Christmas, don’t miss it. But there’s much more to autumn food than rice. In fact, there’s a Japanese saying that “Autumn is the season to eat,” as fall specialties are considered the best of the yearly cycle.
The specialty that Japanese people will think of first is sanma, a fish so seasonal its Japanese name literally translates to “autumn knife fish”. In the west, sanma is formally known as “Pacific saury”, but more commonly referred to as “mackerel pike”. In the fall, Pacific ocean currents bring massive schools of mackerel pike by the Japanese coast, so the fish is hugely fresh and abundant.
Grilling sanma always brings back memories of the big, back-to-school barbecue parties that students at my university organized at the start of the fall term. But don’t underestimate grilled sanma; it’s much more than poor student food. Full of omega-3, sanma is spectacularly fatty and delicately flavored. Grilled over an open flame, it’s the epitome of fall cooking. In early autumn it’s almost obligatory to eat grilled sanma lightly seasoned with a bit of salt or with a light mixture of soy-sauce and grated daikon, aka Japanese radish.
Then there’s the matsutake mushroom. This kind of mushroom is difficult to find, so it’s extremely expensive. If you like, you can compare our passion for these deeply scented mushrooms to European enthusiasm for truffles.
As another popular saying puts it: “Mastutake mushrooms for fragrance, shimeji mushrooms for taste.” People appreciate matsutake chiefly for its unique aromatic fragrance. So you’ll want to try them in dishes where they confer their aroma to another ingredient. Savory rice with matsutake mushrooms is a popular choice, but I’d say the most glorious matsutake dish is dobin mushi, which is a lightly flavored clear broth with matsutake mushroom and vegetables. In Japan, sophisticated cuisine is always light and delicate, making dobin mushi the quintessence of autumnal Japanese high cuisine.
The method of serving dobin mushi is as elegant as its taste is delicate. Traditionally, it is cooked and served in a teapot. First you take the broth in ochoko, a tiny sake cup, then squeeze in a little kabosu, a citrus fruit similar to lemon, and drink it. After enjoying this clear broth, you can eat the vegetables in it. The idea here is to bring the taste of matsutake delicately to the foreground.
Autumn is also the time you will see ginkgo nuts on the plate at Japanese restaurants. You’ll surely find one or two of them in your dobin mushi. You wouldn’t want to eat more than a small handful, but even a few ginkgo nuts on a plate are enough to evoke an autumn landscape, full of ginkgo trees turned completely yellow.
In terms of fruit, the most popular in autumn would be kaki, which is known as persimmon in the West. The brownish-orange color of kaki is the official color of autumn in Japan. Peeled and cut into segments, kaki is the perfect afternoon snack this time of year, and also delicious after a meal.
In Japanese culture, eating seasonally is about much more than just nutrition. Our passion for seasonal food isn’t just about eating, it’s about nurturing a certain sensibility towards nature. As well as taking delight in these meals, they connect us to landscapes that are changing all around us day by day: the red leaves on the trees, the crisp autumn sunshine, the drier and cooler air blowing on your face. To eat seasonally is to push back, just a little bit, against the alienation of mechanized eating and mechanized living, and to use your palate to slow down just a little and really notice the world around you.
Kanako Noda started helping her mom make dinner in Shiga, Japan, at the age of four. An artist based in Montréal by day, she evangelizes on the Japanese way of eating by night. "There's a fantastic, dazzling variety of Japanese dishes that Americans keep missing," she says, "because they can't see past the thick undergrowth of sushi bars everywhere." Kanako believes in real food made by real people using real ingredients, and is allergic to food gimmicks, straight-from-the-lab ingredients and diet fads of all kinds. Most of all, she's into introducing Westerners to Japanese common sense on what you should eat, when, how much, how and with whom. Her Japanese home cooking recipe blog is at KanakosKitchen.com.