Japan is a country with four distinct seasons, each with its representative foods and ingredients. Everyday conversations at supermarkets and around the kitchen will often refer to an ingredient being "shun" or "in season", a key concept in Japanese cooking.
In this article, we will take a whirlwind tour of the different foods that the Japanese look forward to as a new season approaches.
Seasonal Foods in Spring
The long winter breaking into spring brings many joys, among them, an abundance of fresh seasonal foods. Our first will be a seasonal spring basket of fish!
Gilthead sea bream is mainly enjoyed boiled, but when they are just netted and still fresh, they can be prepared as sashimi. A gilthead in spring has a sweet taste of fat, and requires nothing but salt for a delightful experience.
Next up is the kampachi, or the yellowtail in English, a fish loved as sashimi, with ones in season having a nice layer of delicious fat. In addition to sashimi, kampachi is also grilled or boiled. Spring kampachi can also be eaten grilled with salt.
Katsuo, or bonito fish, is often eaten as tataki or sashimi, and is sold as katsuo tataki in Japanese supermarkets. When katsuo is cooked it becomes dry and flaky, and not very appetizing. It's for this reason that you will never see katsuo grilled or boiled, but as a sashimi.
Not a fish, but also a fruit of the sea, clams come into season twice a year: March to April and September to October. Digging up clams on the beach are popular family events. You can make a delicious broth from the clams used in miso soup or cooked rice. When preparing clams, be careful not to overcook, as the meat will become tough and chewy.
We next transition to spring fruits. Harumi is a citrus fruit that is a cross between Kiyomi and the Dekopon. It looks like a mandarin orange, but it is much larger. The flesh is firm and the texture is delicate. Harumi can be eaten right off the tree and peeled, but is also enjoyed as juice or topping for cakes.
Another spring fruit is the loquat. The loquat has soft flesh and large seeds. Once you buy a loquat, don't bother waiting around for it to ripen. Once off the tree, it is ready to eat.
These are just a few of the foods that are in season in spring, but as you can see, there are many.
Seasonal Foods in Summer
As the temperature rises a variety of vegetables and fruits come into season.
Summer is associated with watermelon and watermelon is associated with summer, and interestingly enough, watermelon is both a vegetable and a fruit. Watermelon contains an abundance of sugar, which is quickly converted into energy in the body. It is considered to be the perfect food for those who lack appetite or are suffering from summer fatigue. Watermelon is also low in calories, so you don't have to worry about gaining weight even if you eat a lot of it.
You can buy cucumbers in any season, but they are in their full glory in the summer, both in terms of size and taste. Cucumbers have a cooling effect on the body, which means that they are effective against summer fatigue. Cucumbers are often eaten raw in salads and pickled in salt.
The bitter melon (or gourd) looks like a cross between a cucumber and a witches green nose! Often eaten in Okinawa, the gourd is well known in a dish called goya champuru. As the name suggests, this fruit is extremely bitter and many people won't eat it voluntarily. But there is also sweet gourd that is easier to appreciate. Bitter melon can be grown in your backyard garden and is also effective in preventing summer fatigue--a nice home remedy to have during those hot summer months.
Seasonal Foods in Autumn
Autumn is famously referred to as "the season of appetite" and is welcome for all the delicious foods that are at their prime during this time.
Images of autumn bring with it the chestnut, a food rich in nutrients, proteins and vitamins. Chestnuts can be cooked with rice or roasted and peeled to access the nutty meat.
Next, we have another fish, the saury, or "sanma" in Japanese. The Chinese character for saury contains the word "autumn" in it, signifying the season when it is the most delicious. In autumn, the saury is very fatty and can be enjoyed grilled or as sashimi. In addition to being tasty, the saury are very affordable, and can be found in supermarkets at reasonable prices.
Salmon is in season during the autumn as well. Actually, there are two seasons when salmon are at their eating best: May to July and September to November. Salmon in the fall are pre-spawning, so the flesh is tighter and lighter. Salmon can be used in a variety of dishes, but sometimes simple is best; in foil with butter.
There are many kinds of mushrooms that make their appearance in autumn, such as enoki, eringi and maitake. But without a doubt, the king of autumn mushrooms is the matsutake. These mushrooms are enjoyed grilled or as a soup. In Japan, matsutake are considered a luxury food. Though, recently, more and more matsutake mushrooms are becoming available at lower prices, such as those imported from China and other foreign countries.
Seasonal Foods in Winter
Winter has its own special set of foods and ingredients that people look forward to and enjoy.
The first is Chinese cabbage. Chinese cabbage is a winter vegetable that is harvested mostly in Ibaraki and Nagano prefectures and is in season from November to February; though, you will find this vegetable in supermarkets all year round. A feat possible by changing the place of production. Winter is a delicious season for Chinese cabbage, and it is often used in nabe and stew dishes.
Pumpkin is another food that represents the colder months and is often eaten on the winter solstice. In fact, pumpkins are often harvested in the summer, put to rest, and eaten in the winter. By doing this, a sweetness emerges, making winter pumpkin a great ingredient in desserts like pumpkin pudding, which is not only sweet, but rich in nutrients.
Daikon, or Japanese white radish tastes best in winter. If you eat daikon when it is not in season, you will know it from the bitter aftertaste. In contrast, winter daikon will have a strong sweet taste. Oden is an iconic winter dish that showcases the daikon's best qualities. Not only delicious, radishes contain various nutrients, and are recommended from a health perspective too.
Mikan, or Japanese mandarin oranges make their appearance in winter as well. Japanese mikan are identified by their thinner skin and smaller fruits. A nostalgic scene may be one where the family is sitting around the living room table, peeling mikan and enjoying each others company. This fruit is not only delicious when eaten out of the peal, but also feature in fruit salads and desserts.
Shun is the Key to Japanese Cuisine
We took a tour of foods and ingredients that are best representatives of their season. Shun is a concept that is as common as talking about the weather in Japan, and is incorporated in everyday life as well as the kitchen table.
Using seasonal ingredients will make most any dish taste better, including Japanese. If you have a chance to visit Japan, be sure to visit a local supermarket and look out for some of the foods in season or "shun" introduced in this article.