|Advertising|Jobs 転職|Shukan ST|JT Weekly|Book Club|JT Women|Study in Japan|Times Coupon|Subscribe 新聞購読申込|
|Home > Life in Japan > Food|
Friday, March 23, 2012
Cherry blossom captures the flavor of spring
By MAKIKO ITOH
Special to The Japan Times
The Japanese love affair with the cherry tree and its pink, fragile sakura blossoms is world renowned. Every spring, the nation eagerly awaits for the first pink buds to appear on bare branches. The sakura zensen, or cherry-blossom opening front tracked by Japan's meteorological agency, shows where sakura has started flourishing around the nation, and is reported every day on the news.
And once the flowers are in bloom, everyone goes out to enjoy them in the annual rite of spring called hanami — a picnic and party under the blossoming trees. You can even download handy smartphone apps to locate good hanami spots, track the sakura zensen and more.
The love for sakura doesn't stop at just gazing at the flowers, though: The whole tree gets used in various ways, from homeware to food.
Cherry wood is used as lumber, while the tough, flexible bark is cut into thin strips and used to make small baskets, and to decorate wooden implements such as the bentwood boxes called magewappa. It's also boiled to extract a medicinal elixir that is thought to be good for the throat and respiratory system, or used as a dye for cloth. Cherries, meanwhile, are called sakuranbo in Japanese. Most of all, both the leaves and the flowers are preserved in salt and eaten.
I often find myself wondering about my ancestors and the extent to which they were willing to find out whether something was edible. Did they try to eat the leaves and flowers of a cherry tree because they were desperately hungry, or because they loved the tree and its blossom so much and wanted to show their affection by ingesting it? It's impossible to say for sure. In any case, the preserved flowers and leaves with their fragrant, salty-sour taste are two of the many foods that signify spring.
The best edible leaves and flowers don't come from the Somei-Yoshino tree, the queen of springtime that bursts forth with masses of almost-white, pale pink single flowers. Salt-preserved cherry flowers are usually made with deeper pink multi-petaled Yae-zakura blossoms. The best preserved leaves come from the Oshima-zakura, a variety that has particularly juicy, fragrant foliage. Most domestic preserved sakura leaves are produced on the southern half of the Izu Peninsula, though cheaper leaves are imported from China.
The main use for the preserved leaves is as edible wrappers for sakura-mochi, a traditional sweet (wagashi) that is only available in early to mid spring. Sakura-mochi are so popular around the country that there are several variations, but usually they consist of soft mochi or gyūhi (pounded rice cake) filled with koshian (smooth, sweet adzuki bean paste), with a sakura leaf or two wrapped around the whole thing. The salty-sourness of the leaf subtly flavors the bland mochi, and is a great foil for the sweetness of the bean filling.
Until recently, the primary use for preserved sakura flowers was in sakura-yu, a kind of tea made simply by floating a blossom or two in plain boiling water. The clear, faintly pink tea is slightly salty and slightly sour, and makes an interesting change from green tea.
Traditionally, sakura-yu has been the preferred "tea" served at omiai (arranged meetings between potential marriage partners), as well as at weddings and receptions. This is because sakura-yu is clear and unclouded, fine characteristics for a healthy marriage.
Sakura-manjū (cherry buns) are steamed buns with a sweet bean filling that is often (but not always) flavored with sakura flowers, and are decorated with a preserved flower on top. As with sakura-mochi, the salty-sourness of the flower contrasts well with the sweetness of the bun, and the pink and white appearance is very pretty and springlike.
On the savory side, sakura gohan, rice cooked with a few preserved blossoms and dashi stock, also has that spring appeal.
The use of cherry blossom as a flavor has increased greatly in recent years, perhaps due to the availability of inexpensive imported preserved blossoms. (Cherry-blossom flavor is called sakura, as opposed to cherry-fruit flavor, which is usually called cherry or cherī in katakana.)
Every spring you can buy various pink-colored, sakura-flavored confections, ranging from chocolate to candies to chewing gum. Another more sophisticated sakura-flavored food is sakura salt, which is sprinkled on food instead of regular salt for color and flavor. There are sakura-flavored cupcakes, ice cream and jellies. In macarons, the French almond and meringue confection that has been all the rage in Japan for the last couple of years, sakura flavor is used in the ganache filling and the meringue part is colored pink. At Malebranche, a famous patisserie in Kyoto, the macarons are even shaped like cherry blossoms.
Even if you just try a store-bought sakura-mochi or sakura-flavored candy, I hope you'll try sampling some sakura-flavored foods this spring. After all, what can be more quintessentially Japanese than appreciating the cherry blossoms inside and out?
Makiko Itoh is the author of "The Just Bento Cookbook" (Kodansha USA). She writes about bentō lunches at www.justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.