West Eats East
Seasonal in Food Culture
Turn! turn! turn! There is a season, as Judy Collins sings.
Plants grow on warm days where water flows and are harvested when daytime shortens. Livestock becomes edible when reached to specification. Foods do not come by overnight. Time turns to keep producing our foods. Seasonal is always with the things edible and often connected to holidays or special occasions of the year. Celebrate spring with strong dark beer. Rush for the first corn to a roadside veggie stand in early summer. Watch weight gain by hearty poultry meals with cranberry sauce and pumpkin pies in the fall. Shopping and more eating initiate the days of winter. Japanese are particularly keen to enjoy the first taste of seasonal harvests or catches of the year. A short distance between harvest or catch to mouth makes it possible there. Let’s see the seasonality of Japanese foods and cuisine here.
Before that, we must realize a fact that seasonal appears to be diminishing nowadays. The foods that used to be only available in a season are canned, chilled, frozen or processed into preserved forms, which become available at any season, and their freshness is well maintained by modern food technology. Furthermore, market provides fruit and vegetable produce from the Southern Hemisphere in our winter when it is summer in the south. Mass production, mass marketing and mass consumption likely drive seasonal out of our eating. Despite this, customers surely show an appetite to a seasonal special. Seasonal is not totally dead but can be utilized for value-adding or specialty to differentiate from competitors in unique, small operations today.
In Japan, spring is full of warm days with sprouting plants. A bamboo shoot is dug when a tip of a new bud breaks just barely out of the earth. It is simply boiled, often with rice bran to remove roughness, and sliced and served with miso-vinegar sauce. Summer provides all kinds of vegetables and catches from fresh and salt water, which reinvigorate heat exhausting the stomach and soul. Autumn is the season of new crops and catches from nature, a great eating season. An early winter is the season of crabs, but we are out of most of other seasonal items, which excuses us to hibernate with stocked stuffs and warm sake.
Any seasonal Japanese foods or cuisine in our market? Let’s set an imaginary sushi restaurant. You go to your table under shouts of “Irashaimase Hi! Glad to come.” Naturally you have an urgency to moisten your dried throat. With your order of Japanese beer or sake, a bowl of edamame is often served as a relish or tidbit, which is usually included in the drink charge. Edamame is a sign of summer arrival to drink chilled beer with it there. Here, edamame, simply soybeans, is processed to be frozen after harvest in the Midwest and served or sold in a freezer case at any time, anywhere. It used to be brilliant green with a beany flavor when boiled freshly harvested, with a pinch of salt. Such a hue or flavor and likely texture are often lost. Edamame appears to be losing its seasonal nature but gaining a status of Japanese snack with drinks year round. Next, miso soup is on the way to your table. In miso soup bits of tofu soybean paste and leafy Wakame sea-veggies are swimming. This sea-veggie is a seasonal harvest in spring but often dried for being available at any time, so no more seasonal touch.
Now sushi time. Absolutely seasonal for all fish, shellfish and seafood. Bonito is the first fish in an early summer, which people used to pay big money to eat in old days of Japan. Yellowtail tastes best in late fall. Salmon is also a catch of the fall. Squid, octopus or scallop is local and seasonal, but most of them are frozen-thawed today. Tuna is no exception, caught all over the ocean, deep-frozen, consumed at any time, any place. Besides, many fishes and crustaceans are farm-raised without a top season of harvest. Oh, one thing about seasonal sushi I have encountered in my last trip to Japan. That was a Nigiri sushi with two slices of eggplant, broiled, with miso-vinegar sauce on top. Today sushi can be seasonal with eggplant or other veggies! I believe. Animal foods practically have little to do with seasonal but plant foods can, which is applicable to many other cuisines nowadays.
The most distinct seasonal is Matsutake mushroom Ponderosa mushroom, $90+/lb, being sold at Japanese grocery stores. Its pungent aroma and crunchy texture are prized for the taste of autumn. Local ones, harvested in California in the past, moved to Oregon-Washington, now in Canada, and some in Mexico, are being exported to Japan. A Nigiri sushi with Matsutake could be a good seasonal at a good price. For other seasonals, odds may be better at Izakaya or Kappo restaurants where a more traditional style cuisine is served. For the food business, it is a good idea to present seasonal or today’s special at the holidays or events even with ready-to-serve packages in frozen or chilled form, made and exported from Asia. Nothing wrong with it, I guess. Seasonal is good to anyone!