Harvest Festival

Matsutake Mushrooms
Matsutake Mushrooms

Autumn is an amazing time to harvest vegetables and seafood in Japan. This article that first appeared in Metropolis magazine highlights the best of fall.

http://archive.metropolis.co.jp/tokyo/555/localflavors.asp (text follows)

Having grown up in Minnesota, I will always associate autumn with a crunch underfoot while walking through fallen leaves on a crisp day. In Tokyo, I have momiji, the delicate maple leaf bursting with the color of blood oranges and fire trucks. Nature also graciously gives of herself in food, and autumn in Japan is a destination for any gourmand.

Indeed, perhaps the first noticeable sign that fall has come is in the type of dishes we eat. I find myself ordering soba with hot broth instead of the cold dipping sauce. Sales of oden and warm nikuman increase at 7-Eleven. I find myself drinking shochu on the rocks less and more often than not with hot water. And just as restaurants and stores bring out their seasonal hashioki (chopstick rests) and other vessels used for food, Mother Nature provides a bounty of ingredients, from mushrooms to bonito, to savor throughout the fall.

Matsutake, the king of Japanese mushrooms, is perhaps the most prized and recognizable of the season’s bounty. It is a delicacy and somewhat rare, which explains its outrageous prices. But if the opportunity presents itself, you should try it and see if you can sense the delicate aroma of pine. This famous fungus is typically found in matsutake gohan or in a clear soup called dobinmushi. One way to try matsutake without breaking the bank is to purchase them at a discount from the vendors at Ameyoko, under the tracks in Ueno. However, I like to keep more affordable mushrooms in my fridge, including shiitake, maitake, enoki, eringi and shimeji. The simplest way to enjoy them is to sauté the mushrooms in olive oil with salt and pepper. For a quick dish to accompany a glass of sake, you can grill some shiitake caps, and season with salt and yuzu.

The fall harvest also includes Japan’s most important agricultural product—rice. Shinmai (new rice) is known for having a slight amami, or sweetness, to it and is a bit softer than rice that was harvested last year. If you’re in the mood for noodles, buckwheat is also harvested this time of year, so slurp up some soba.

Another vegetable that abounds in autumn is the potato. Satsuma imo is a sweet potato hailing from Satsuma in Kyushu, and is also the source of imo jochu. For a healthy snack, lightly fry thin slices of Satsuma imo, with the skins, then sprinkle with salt. Sato imo has a slippery texture and is often found in simmered dishes. Naga imo is the super-slippery potato found grated and served over rice with soy sauce, or sliced into julienne strips and served raw in salads.

Seafood spiking in popularity these days include salmon and katsuo (bonito), which I like tataki style, barely grilled on the outside and raw on the inside. Shioyaki sanma is also incredibly easy to make at home, because there is no need to filet it. Simply sprinkle a whole fish with salt and place in your broiler for just a few minutes on each side and voila! The innards have a sharp nigami or bitterness to them, which is part of what makes it so delicious to some. If you’re adept with your chopsticks, you can avoid this area completely. Kaki (oysters) also are in season and you can eat them raw (nama gaki) or breaded and deep-fried like tonkatsu (kaki furai).

A walk through the dessert areas of a depachika will give an indication of the fruits of the season, such as grapes, nashi (pears) and kaki (persimmons). Kuri (chestnuts) will also find their way into rice dishes as well as many desserts. They are often referred to by their French name, marron. Fresh ichijiku (figs) served with a cheese plate make a nice end to a dinner. And although you may not be a fan of wagashi, the traditional Japanese sweets, take time to check out the beautiful designs. Naturally, momiji is a recurring theme in many different confectionaries, and they are truly works of art.

What to drink with all of this? I am reminded by my sake colleague at Takashimaya to try some good-quality nihonshu that is great when slightly warmed. Or perhaps an imo jochu, or one that is dear to my heart, kuri shochu, light on the palate with a faint amami. Whatever you choose, you are sure to revel in the gifts of nature in the fall.

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