Healthy options, all year round.
While most may flock to Japan in spring to see the blooming cherry blossoms, the autumnal months offer their own colourful explosion of nature when the leaves of the delicate maple trees light the landscape into a warm kaleidoscope of reds, oranges, and yellows. The warmth of these seasonal shades provide a stark contrast against the crisp dry chill — a much welcome relief from the sticky humidity of the summer months.
According to Toki, a Japanese travel company, “[A] phrase appropriate during fall is “芸術の秋 (geijutsu no aki),” which literally means “autumn, the season for art.” In Japan, fall symbolises freshness and new endeavours…it is a season for both artists and art enthusiasts to appreciate art and encounter artistic inspiration.”
With the idea of nature being one of the main pillars of Japanese art, it is no wonder that the celebration of the arts and culture thrive during this beautiful season. But what about the culinary arts?
Instead of focusing on certain dishes, we’ll talk about the basic ingredients that truly represent autumn in Japan.
While you may not find this in the produce section, there are many different ways to signify fall on your plate. For one — sanma (秋刀魚), or pike mackerel. While also being called pacific saury, sanma is a fantastic option for those blue, oily fish lovers or those who are looking to eat more Omega-3’s in a tasty way.
Sanma hits the goldilocks size of not being too big like regular mackerel, but also not being too tiny like a sardine. With smooth, chromatic skin, sanma is a fish that doesn’t need a lot of seasoning or oils during the cooking process. To make it the most “authentic” way, grill them with salt and finish off with a squeeze of citrus — but don’t forget to add on a side of rice, miso soup, and healthy Japanese pickles to make it a complete, well-rounded teishoku!
Chestnuts or kuri (栗) are also welcomed back this season as a tasty, protein-filled snack for your long pensive walks. Like with many cultures, you can often find little cart vendors sprinkled throughout the city providing some freshly roasted kuri. However, unlike many cultures, Japanese recipes more commonly call for them to be soaked and boiled until tender. This way, you get a creamier texture that would be great on its own or mixed into desserts like the delicious Mont Blanc.
Not all chestnuts are the same. According to Google Arts & Culture, Japanese chestnuts are bigger, stronger in smell, and are more difficult to open than their Western counterparts. But don’t fret, you can always find them prepared for you during the fall!
The consumption of chestnuts have been around for millenia in Japan, with remnants of charred conkers being found throughout many archeological sites in Japan. In fact, scientists believe that chestnuts were central to the Japanese culture and diet during prehistoric times as discoveries show evidence of large cultivation, ritual practices, and even the chestnut wood being used for housing. (via Japan Times)
Nowadays, Ibaraki reigns supreme in terms of chestnut production and one of the best places in Ibaraki to stop by and get chestnuts is in the Kasama “Michi-no-Eki” or roadside stations. Unlike the stereotypical, seedy gas stations that you might find dotted along dusty American highways, Japanese rest stops are a place to not only stretch your legs but also grab some local delicacies!
According to DigJapan, the beautiful Kasama roadside station offers restaurants, groceries, and artisanal souvenirs collected and created by local residents — with the main attraction being the chestnut! Stop here for a delicious lunch, finish off with a nutty dessert, then make sure to grab some snacks for the road before heading off to your next destination!
Unlike sanma, kuri is probably easier to find throughout the world and is vegan-friendly. Find them fresh during the fall season or in an easy to eat package all year round! Just check out your local East Asian supermarket to see what they have available.
Last but not least, potatoes or imo (芋). As a rice heavy nation, one would think that Japanese people wouldn’t eat that many potatoes. But when the cool weather hits, that means the tubers are ready to come out and get on our plates!
We’ll mention two tubers: the sweet potato (satsumaimo/薩摩芋) and the taro root (satoimo/里芋) — which may appear deceiving to people expecting bright oranges and purples in their recipes.
The Japanese sweet potato has a deep violet peel with a pale yellow flesh that is only lightly sweetened — which means that this potato serves versatility for both sweet and savoury dishes. The simplest way to eat these is to roast them, skin on, on the grill or in your oven. Afterwhich, we recommend eating it with some butter and a drizzle of soy sauce or honey! If you’re looking for a tasty new starch that provides complex carbs, fibre, and essential vitamins — the Japanese sweet potato is your best bet this season to feel wholesome and satisfied.
The other option would be the Satoimo taro root. If you imagine your dishes being blessed with a beautiful hue of purple — you’re thinking of ube. Taro root actually has a fuzzy brown exterior with innards that turn rather grey after cooking. Texture-wise, it has a peculiar quality of being both very smooth but also rather firm at the same time. As such, this one is better for “wet cooking” in stews or simmers like the hearty, miso soup-based Tonjiru or the sweet and salty Satoimo no Nimono.
Nutrition-wise, Shizuoka Gourmet reported that taro root is easy to digest while also being a food known for providing stamina — something we definitely need when the days get shorter and the chill gets stronger. (Not to mention, the healthy amount of potassium also helps maintain blood pressure and combat stress.
Fall may mean different things to different people, but why not make your own meaning. As the trees shed their leaves for the year, take time to think about the things that may also need to be shed from your daily life. (Don’t forget to eat some healthy meals, though!)
Next up: Shochu! Just in time for National Shochu Day, let’s get into this uniquely versatile Japanese liquor that originates from the South of Japan! Check back in two weeks to find your favourite type and your favorite way to drink it (there’s a few). In the meantime, follow us on Facebook and Instagram for more fun facts, photos, and tidbits!