When Sweet Isn't Sweet Enough
Japan loves its seasons. And no, I’m not talking about just good ol' autumn-winter-spring-summer-type seasons. Those are kisetsu (季節), and as much as Japan enjoys gazing at cherry blossoms during the spring and watching fireworks in the summer, it adores shun (旬) just as much.
Used to describe seasonal food rather than seasons, I've come to learn that shun is likely the largest determinant of the contents of one’s meals. Well, at least that's how it is with my particular host family. This became very apparent to me during my very first night in Japan, when my host mother served me ichigo (Japanese strawberries). And these, my friend, are nothing like the strawberries you pick up at your local Ralph's.
These perfectly shaped, ruby red fruits were everything I ever wanted a strawberry to be, and then some. That night, I was convinced that I had just tasted the most supreme of supreme fruits. I swear a smile was being compelled out of the deepest depths of my sugar-loving self. I was practically floating in strawberry-induced bliss until suddenly I heard my host mother exclaim: 甘くない! (not sweet).
“Really?” I inquired in Japanese, not quite-sputtering. “Whatever could you mean?” I imagined myself saying in an overdramatic English accent.
She simply replied: 残念ですが、旬が終わった。(It’s too bad but the season is over.)
Suffice it to say, we didn’t have strawberries again.
Later on, I learned that peak indoor-grown strawberry season takes place between December and March. Apparently the strawberries we had that night can't even compare to in-season strawberries. During this period, a small box of strawberries can run upwards of 1000 yen (~USD 10) at a grocery store, or 6900 yen (~USD 69) at Tokyo’s luxury fruit parlors. Following strawberry season is cherry season, and summertime welcomes melons of all varieties, mangos, and grapes. Persimmons and apples are particularly tasty in the autumn, and citrus have a reputation as being quintessentially winter. Of course, shun applies to far more than just fruit, and almost every meal with my host family has been accompanied by a brief culinary lesson.
For instance, my host father’s handmade takuon (pickled daikon radish) tastes best for the two months following January, and katsuo (skipjack tuna sashimi) is at its most delicious in the spring. One of my host father’s personal favorites, takenoko (bamboo shoots) are at their softest and most expensive just after cherry blossom season. Once the last of the beautiful pink flowers had fallen, my host father kindly asked my host mother to make some takenoko for dinner. She obliged and we proceeded to eat some variation of a takenoko-and-rice for the next three days.
All in all, I’ve become increasingly accustomed to my host mother’s daily explanations of food over the last month and a half. Beyond mere flavor, I feel there is something about abiding to the seasons that pays respect to the cycles and limitations of life. Like cherry blossoms, there is a temporality and impermanence to the food that my host family consumes. Because they willingly partake in the natural restrictions of nature, even the most beloved of food is off-limits until the appropriate period has begun. I will never quite forget my host father’s face when my host mother served takenoko (for the sixth time) with the firm declaration that this was saigo (the last time).