Shun: the Essence of the Seasons
When I think of Japan in summer, childhood memories of peaches come to mind. Available only in the sultry days of late July, the gigantic, blushing pink, softball sized white flesh peaches were so succulent, their floral fragrance so heady, that biting into one induced a near swooning sensation. One particular memory of greedily enjoying an unpeeled whole peach alone over my aunt’s kitchen sink – its impossibly sweet juices dripping down my chin – is so vivid that it eclipses other more “important” memories and milestones. To this day, I long to return to Japan in July, just to experience this sensual delight once again.
Because Japan’s markets celebrate seasonal local produce, such pleasures are eagerly anticipated throughout the year, and form an important role in Japanese culture. Consideration for the season is second nature; part of the Japanese psyche. This attention to the seasons even has a term: kisetsukan.
The origin of this emphasis on seasonality can be traced back to the roots of the indigenous nature-loving Shinto religion, as well as to Japan’s agrarian past, which includes seasonal celebrations such as rice planting and harvest festivals. Many of these seasonal festivals continue to this day, forming a large part of Japan’s culture.
There is also a word to describe the celebration of seasonal food at its peak, as there is no equivalent in English: shun. This word describes the exact moment that a vegetable is at its very best, a fruit at its most succulently sweet, fish at its most flavorful. Serious chefs take great pride in the celebration of shun, and it is central to the culinary world.
Markets take pride in featuring the best local produce in season, and some stores completely change their offerings as the season changes. The famous Toriichi Shinise in Kyoto sells fresh bamboo shoots in spring, eggplant in summer, matsutake mushrooms in fall, and pickled kabu (turnip) in winter. Although imported produce is also readily available, the recent LOHAS movement has sparked a renewed and zealous return to local produce, which is often twice the price.
Itamae (chefs) are in charge of procuring the very best of these seasonal ingredients from various sources, including specialty shops, wholesale markets and directly from farms. In smaller specialty restaurants, the itacho (head chef) covers this most important duty personally, constructing the menu during market visits. The calendar of availability for fish is also widely anticipated and celebrated, with early arrivals of each variety bringing sharply higher prices.
Seasonality extends beyond the food itself in an attempt to enhance the dining experience, for instance, to the tableware. A glass bowl that mimics the texture of ice, thus making the diner feel cool, would be inappropriate in the dead of winter. Likewise, earthy, warm-hued ceramic dishes are favored in the fall, while bright green dishes, mimicking the color of fresh bamboo leaves, are used in spring. Cherry blossoms, or vegetables cut into their shape, garnish dishes in spring, while delicate scarlet maple leaves are scattered across fall place settings.
And, seasonality extends to other areas of daily life; artwork displayed in tokonomas, the colors of fashions, and even the rotating exhibitions in museums. The Nezu Art Museum displays its famous pair of Iris screens by Ogata Korin in early April, just before the arrival of the actual flower. This way, eager art lovers enjoy the anticipation of seeing the real blooms, as well as the beauty of the screen, which is placed in storage until this special occasion.
This anticipation prolongs the enjoyment and enhances the excitement of the season. For instance, cherry blossom forecasts hit the internet in mid-February, when cabin fever is at its height and the populace longs for spring. Anticipation builds as daily updates are provided on TV, starting with the first buds in southern Kyushu. When the blooms finally arrive, the whole country celebrates under the heavily laden branches in an outdoor festival of food, drink and fun: the Cherry Blossom Festival. That the delicate petals last for but a few days only adds to their poignant beauty and encourages the celebration of “now.”
Eating seasonally (and locally) certainly makes a lot of sense, and I’m happy to see this trend growing in the US. This way, produce is at its most fresh, cheap and nutritious when it arrives at our table. In the modern age of imported produce, it’s easy to expect strawberries in winter, but do you remember how much more fun it was when you were a child, eagerly anticipating the June harvest?
Buying a share in an organic farm is a great way to eat seasonally, and encourages experimentation with different vegetables and fruit you might not normally buy. But most of all, it just takes paying attention. Once you are mindful of this rhythm of nature, you’ll no longer find yourself in the middle of summer, wondering how spring could have passed by with barely a notice. I really believe this attention to the moment can lead to true happiness.
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Tableware is just as important to Japanese cuisine as the food itself. Choosing the perfect serving vessel for a certain dish is an art form, and in Japan (as anywhere), the better the restaurant, the more exquisite the tableware. There is a time-honored tradition of Japanese food arrangement that goes back at least as far as the 16th century.
At home, modern chefs rarely follow such rules, nor could they afford to, as antique and modern artist signed work is extremely expensive. However, setting a Japanese table is one of the joys for any home cook. You might even say that it is our reward. Whatever the season, there is an appropriate mood that is conveyed, as described in the article on seasonality. The color, shape, and even tactile feel of a vessel also enhance whatever food is served, making it seem even more delicious. For more on this, see the article The Power of Five.
We have a growing collection of tableware at our house, but even for everyday use, we regularly use antique dishes and nice lacquerware. The photo below shows a typical dinner setting.
Notice how the size of each dish is rather small, and that we have a mix of old and new dishes in many shapes and colors? Many Japanese dishes, which usually come in sets of five or 10, have different glazes and designs. We also create our own sets by mixing and matching. As you can see in the photo below, our beloved shochu cups are all different. Instead of buying a set, we have been buying one piece at a time, whenever we come across something interesting.
But you don’t need to completely change your dishes to serve Japanese food. Many Western dishes can be used successfully by following a few simple tricks. I’ll cover these in future articles.
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