Spring is a very special period in Japan, not only because it brings an end to the cold winter. “Spring is like a start of a new life,” says Miyuki Suyari from Simply Oishii Cooking School in Tokyo. In Japan, everything starts in spring - new fiscal year, new academic year. People start working in spring, after graduating from a university.
It is also the time when nature awakens after the winter hibernation. “To me, spring is about freshness and vitality,” says Emi Hirayama from Uzuki cooking class in Kyoto. "Once winter is gone, we enjoy new-born buds, sprouts and shoots, which epitomize the powerful energy of spring.”
The First Signs of Spring
The bright green nanohana (a close cousin of broccoli) is one the first vegetables to appear on the spring table. It is only enjoyed for a short period of time, before the plant blossoms, dotting the countryside with gorgeous yellow carpets. A spring classic, served both at home and in restaurants, is the simplest salad of blanched nanohana tossed in sesame or mustard dressing.
Another seasonal delicacy is "kinome" (baby leaves of "sansho" pepper tree). Used as a garnish for most spring dishes, it gives them a unique peppery, citrusy and minty aroma.
From early spring, you may also come across unfamiliar weed-looking greens in your local grocery store. "Sansai" (edible wild vegetables) have been picked in the mountains and in the forests since the olden days and are believed to stimulate your body after winter. “When spring would finally arrive in Hokkaido, my parents would always go 'sansai' picking in the small mountain they owned. It was their spring ritual,” recalls Miyuki. Nowadays, many "sansai" are farm-grown but "sansai" picking in the countryside remains a popular attraction. You can even join organized tours, where qualified guides will explain to you all about these wild greens.
"Sansai" have a crisp texture and distinctive bitterish flavor (known as "egumi") that protects them from animals looking for soft young sprouts. That’s why they need to be soaked and/or boiled before eating. Most of the many varieties have no Western equivalents. Some of the more popular "sansai" include "yama udo" (“Japanese mountain asparagus”), "fuki" (Japanese butterbur, reminiscent of a giant rhubarb) and "kogomi" (recognizable by its characteristic twisted stern that resembles a seahorse’s tail). The "sansai" season is short, so make sure to taste them in one form or another – simply blanched and served in dressed salads, added to soups or deep fried in tempura batter. Better still, try to prepare Miyuki’s three-way "udo" and Emi’s "fuki" stalks wrapped in "yuba" (soymilk skin).
Takenoko is a Springtime Must
Among the wild edibles, bamboo sprouts ("takenoko" - literally “bamboo children”) are the undisputed springtime favorite. “Between April and May, I always make sure to eat at least one dish with 'takenoko.' Otherwise, I feel as if I did not have spring,” says Emi. With bamboo shoots you need to be vigilant, as they grow very quickly and the season is over in just a few weeks. If you’re adventurous enough, you can make a trip to one of Japan’s numerous bamboo groves and (for a small fee) dig up some shoots yourself. At the Wakatama farm in Tochigi Prefecture, just two hours north of Tokyo, you can even barbecue your bamboo shoots directly on site. “Immediately after being dug from the ground, 'takenoko' can be eaten raw but they soon develop an unpleasant 'egumi' taste,” explains Miyuki. To remove the bitterness from the shoots, be sure to boil them - ideally with a bit of rice bran ("nuka") or water from rinsing rice - before further use. “Nowadays most people will not go through the trouble of cooking the shoots themselves and will instead buy them pre-cooked and vacuum-packed," says Miyuki, "but freshly cooked 'takenoko' have a unique taste, so it’s definitely worth a try.”
Classic bamboo recipes include bamboo shoots with rice ("takenoko gohan"), a side dish of bamboo shoots simmered with "wakame" seaweed ("wakatakeni") and "takenoko no kinome-ae" – cooked bamboo shoots with a dressing of white miso and "kinome" leaves (see Emi’s recipe below).
More Familiar Tastes
Like in the West, spring is also the season for green asparagus, legumes (green peas, snow peas, green beans, fava beans) as well as tender new potatoes, onions and cabbage.
Takenoko no Kinome-ae by Emi
Delicious spring side dish, featuring crunchy bamboo shoots ("takenoko"), sweet mild miso and fragrant "kinome" leaves.
Ingredients (serves 4)
1 fresh "takenoko" (bamboo shoot) 3 tablespoons "nuka" (rice bran) A couple of red chili peppers
For broth: 350 milliliters dashi (fresh-made* or from dashi bags) 2 teaspoons light soy sauce 1 teaspoon mirin
For "kinome" miso: 20 "kinome" leaves, plus some extra for garnish 3 tablespoons "shiromiso" (white and sweet miso) 1 teaspoon mirin 2 teaspoons sake Method
Rinse the "takenoko" and cut off the top 1/5 part at an angle, keeping the skin. Put in a pot with 1 liter of cold water, "nuka" (rice bran) and red chili peppers. Bring to boil and simmer for 30 minutes.
Let cool in the cooking water. Remove the skin and cut into 1.5 cm squares. Put 150 grams of boiled "takenoko" in a pot with cold "dashi," soy sauce and mirin. Bring to boil and simmer for approximately 5 minutes. Prepare "kinome" miso: Chop "kinome" leaves and grind them in a mortar. Add miso, mirin and sake, and mix well. Combine with "takenoko" and 1 teaspoon of the broth. Serve garnished with extra "kinome" leaves.
- Basic "dashi" stock proportion: 500 ml cold water + 10 grams of dried "kombu" + 10 grams "katsuobushi" (bonito flakes). For the substitution, you can use paper bag "dashi."
Fuki no Yubamaki by Emi
Perfect spring pairing of aromatic fuki stalks and delicate yuba (Kyoto delicacy made of soymilk skin).
Ingredients (serves 4)
12 "fuki" stalks, each around 12 cm long (may be substituted by green asparagus) 4 "yuba" sheets, each around 12 cm long (may be substituted by dried "yuba" wrapped in dump cloth before cooking to soften). 500 milliliters "dashi" broth (fresh-made* or from "dashi" bags) 2 tablespoons mirin 2 tablespoons light soy sauce 1 teaspoon regular soy sauce ½ teaspoon sugar Rub "fuki" stalks with a bit of salt and allow to rest briefly to remove bitterness. Without rinsing, place the "fuki" in a pot of boiling water and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Plunge in cold water and drain. Strip away the outer veins (similar to those on celery). Roll three pieces of "fuki" in one "yuba" sheet. Do the same with the remaining three sheets. Put "dashi," mirin, both types of soy sauce and sugar in a pot, and bring to boil. Add the "yuba" rolls and simmer for approximately 10-15 minutes over medium heat. Cut each roll in 3 pieces and serve garnished with "kinome" or carrot slices cut into sakura petals and boiled briefly in the broth left after cooking the "yuba" rolls.
- Basic "dashi" stock proportion: 500 ml cold water + 10 grams of dried "kombu" + 10 grams "katsuobushi." For the substitution you can use paper bag "dashi."
Udo in three ways by Miyuki
Three ways to completely use a single "udo" (Japanese mountain asparagus): "kinpira" from the skin, salad from the flesh and tempura from the tips.
Preparing the "udo"
Wash and cut off the bottom hard part and the thin stem with tip so you have one thick stem of "udo." Chop the stem into 4-cm length pieces. Peel the skin by holding the chopped stem in a vertical position and slicing down 2 millimeters of the skin on all sides using a knife.
Udo Skin Kimpira (Stir-fry)
2 stems udo 2 teaspoons sesame oil 1 dried chili 1 teaspoon soy sauce 1 teaspoon mirin
Stack the skins and julienne into 5-mm-wide strips. Chop the dried chili into 3-mm squares and remove the seeds. Heat the sesame oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Fry the chili until fragrant and add the "udo" skin. Fry for a few minutes until soft. Add the soy sauce and mirin and fry until the liquid has evaporated. Transfer into a serving bowl. To be eaten hot or cold.
Udo in Vinegary Miso Sauce
2 stems "udo" 1 tablespoon vinegar 1 tablespoon miso 1/2 tablespoon sugar
Chop the "udo" stem into 4-cm pieces and peel as above. Slice the pieces into 3-mm-wide strips and place in a bowl of water with a splash of vinegar (1/2 teaspoon vinegar to 1 liter of water) to remove its bitterness. (If the "udo" is fresh and you don’t taste any bitterness, you can omit this process). Mix vinegar, miso and sugar in a small bowl, and add the "udo." Mix until evenly coated.
Tip ends of the "udo" For the tempura batter: 180 milliliters egg water (mix one small egg with cold water to make 180 milliliters) 180 milliliters flour (keep in the freezer until ready to use)
Briefly mix the tempura batter (do not overmix). Dip the "udo" tips in the batter and fry in 170°C oil for 2-3 minutes.© Japan Today