As the lovely autumn descends upon Japan and turns the surroundings into shades of red, orange, and yellow, the summer heat dissipates which in turn boosts our appetite for delicious food. Coupled with the fact that autumn is typically the harvest season for many types of food ingredients, it is probably no wonder that there is a Japanese term “aki no mikaku (秋の味覚)” which is used to describe in-season food during this period of the year.
Although there is no standard list of items that fit the definition of “aki no mikaku,” here are 4 signature autumn foods which you should definitely try while in Japan:
At the mention of “aki no mikaku,” sanma i.e. Pacific saury fish is probably the first thing which comes to mind. With regard to its Japanese name, there are two theories as to how it came about. The first relates to its long and narrow appearance where the old name for the saury i.e. samana (狭真魚) changed to become “sanma” overtime. The second, however, refers to the saury’s habit of swimming together in large schools known as sawanma (沢魚) which later was modified to become “sanma.” The Kanji version of the name only came into use from the Taisho era (大正時代) which means the fish which looks like a knife that is caught in autumn.
As the sanma is largely caught from Japan’s waters especially in the northern part of the Pacific Ocean, it is no surprise that the top three prefectures where the most sanma is caught are Hokkaido (北海道), Miyagi (宮城), and Iwate (岩手). Due to the sanma’s short lifespan and difficulty in catching them alive, there is little demand for farm-bred sanma. Depending on the location, the best time to eat the sanma also differs. For example, if you are in Hokkaido, sanma is in season between late August and October, while in Aomori (青森), it will be between October and November. As for Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima (福島), the best time to eat sanma would be in the month of November.
During autumn, the most popular way of cooking sanma is said to be the salt-grilled method (sanma no shioyaki / サンマの塩焼き). The sanma is then eaten together with squeezed juice of citrus fruits such as kabosu (かぼす), sudachi, yuzu (柚子), lemon or lime, soy sauce, and grated white radish (大根). The sanma is also available as a canned food where the fish is cooked in the kabayaki (蒲焼き) method i.e. broiled in soy sauce. In recent years, the sanma has also grown in popularity as sashimi (刺し身) especially in early autumn when there is lesser fat in the fish and is sometimes used in oshizushi (押し寿司 – pressed sushi).
If you happen to be in these places during this season, do check out these special sanma dishes:
Nukasanma (糠さんま) is available at Kushiro City (釧路市), Hokkaido Prefecture (北海道) where the sanma is fermented in rice bran. If you have read the manga Shokugeki no Souma (食戟のソーマ), this dish is also featured in the story.
Kamisanma (神さんま) can be found in Kumano City (熊野市), Mie Prefecture (三重県) where the sanma is prepared in a traditional method of seasoning with just salt before it is smoked. It is said to be a great accompanying dish with steamed rice.
Sanma no Hirakiboshi (さんまの開き干し) is a specialty of Akashi City (明石市) in Hyogo Prefecture (兵庫県) where the fish is split open and deboned before being dried. As there is no condiment added to the sanma, it is regarded as a healthy way of consuming the fish.
In Ofunato (大船渡), Iwate Prefecture, the local sanma ramen (さんまラーメン) can be found in various restaurants within the city. Depending on the restaurant, the type of sanma served may differ. In some places, the shioyaki (塩焼き) version is placed on top while in other places, the kanroni version (甘露煮) where the sanma is stewed in soy sauce and sugar is served. In rare instances, the sanma no hone senbei (サンマの骨せんべい) is provided where the whole fish is deep-fried to resemble a rice cracker.
There is also a sanma festival which takes place in September every year in Tokyo named Meguro no Sanma Matsuri (目黒のさんま祭り). In its 21st edition (Japanese only) which took place at the shopping street in front of Meguro Station on 4 September 2016, as many as 7,000 sanma from Miyako City in Iwate Prefecture were grilled on the spot and given out for free to the visitors who came to the festival. On average, 30,000 people attend this annual event which also includes activities and attractions such as lucky draws and artistic balloons for children.
The kuri i.e. chestnuts is another signature autumn food which can be found in almost every prefecture in Japan since it can be grown as long as the average temperatures range between 10 and 14 degrees Celsius and do not go below minus 20 degrees Celsius. In terms of production volume, the top 3 prefectures are Ibaraki (茨城), Kumamoto (熊本), and Ehime (愛媛) while the Tanba Region (丹波地方) which includes three prefectures i.e. Kyoto (京都), Osaka (大阪), and Hyogo (兵庫), and Obuse-machi (小布施町) in Nagano Prefecture (長野県) are famous for their high-quality chestnuts.
As the kuri is prone to infestation of insects if left at room temperature, it is recommended that fresh, unpeeled chestnuts are dried in the sun first so that the moisture within is removed. Subsequently, the chestnuts are to be wrapped up in newspapers before being placed into a plastic bag and chilled in the refrigerator. If the chestnuts are boiled in water, they should then be placed into the freezer section. During this chilling period, the chestnuts are said to mature and its sugar content is boosted depending on how long this is done. However, take note that the maturing period should not be more than one month as mold may form on the chestnuts. Although it looks like the chestnuts’ skin is difficult to peel off, soaking the chestnuts in warm water for a while until the skin has softened and removing the bottom part with a knife first before peeling with your hands will help make it easier.
The kuri is a very versatile ingredient which can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. The most common savory dish featuring the kuri during this season would have to be the kuri gohan (栗ごはん – chestnut rice) and kuri okowa (栗おこわ – chestnut mochi rice). The key difference between these dishes is the use of non-glutinous rice in the kuri gohan and glutinous rice in the kuri okowa. To make this dish, the kuri is peeled and scattered into the rice which also contains sake (酒) and/or mirin (みりん) before it is steamed or boiled in a pot or rice cooker. Usually, the kuri is not cut into small pieces and eaten whole. In some recipes, dashi (出汁 – stock) made from konbu (昆布 – seaweed) is used to add flavor to the rice and black sesame seeds are sprinkled on the cooked rice.
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If you have a sweet tooth, you might want to try the kuri kinton (candied chestnuts). However, note that there are actually two types of kuri kinton in Japan which are eaten during different periods of the year. The kuri kinton (栗金団 – Japanese only) pictured above is mainly eaten during the Japanese New Year in January and the Kanji characters 金団 mean a golden dumpling or bedding. Due to its gold color, this wagashi is regarded as an auspicious item to bring in monetary fortune and good business. For those who are not too keen on sweet stuff, note that this wagashi has a high sugar content and is very sticky. Most of the filling used in this version of the kuri kinton is made from sweet potatoes. To enhance the golden color, the gardenia is added to the outer skin made from kuri.
Another type of kuri kinton (栗金飩 – Japanese only) is eaten typically during autumn and originated from the eastern part of Mino City (美濃市) in Gifu Prefecture (岐阜県) whereby sugar is added to kuri and boiled. As compared to its New Year counterpart, the autumn kuri kinton is not sticky at all, has the shape of a kuri, and the filling is in the form of a puree. Usually, this version of the kuri kinton is available for sale between 1 September and January the following year which coincides with the harvesting season of the kuri. Nonetheless, some wagashi makers offer this throughout the year so you may be able to find this during seasons other than autumn. It is best to consume this wagashi within two to four days and to prevent the taste from being affected, the autumn kuri kinton should be stored in the fridge.
Matsutake is a type of premium mushroom regarded as the best among the edible varieties and it typically grows in cool regions at higher latitudes. At warmer places like Kyushu (九州), the matsutake starts to grow from late August to the end of November. Note, though, that the matsutake which grows prematurely during the rainy season between spring and summer are called samatsu (早松) which can also be eaten but will not be as valuable as the matsutake. Likewise, there is the kinoko (キノコ) which is another type of mushroom that resembles the matsutake but doesn’t command a price tag as high as the latter. In the Kansai Region, the matsutake is usually called “mattake (マッタケ)”.
Picking the matsutake is extremely difficult because the caps of the mushroom do not jut out from the ground as prominently as the kinoko. In fact, the cap is usually located 1 to 2 cm above the ground so spotting the matsutake is not easy to begin with. In forests where there are lots of lichens, it is even more difficult to spot the matsutake. At present, although there are efforts in cultivating matsutake by artificial means, progress has been limited due to various issues such as the slower growing process so the matsutake in Japan are harvested naturally.
In the past, the matsutake was a commoner’s dish as a result of its abundance arising from a conducive growing environment brought about by the proliferation of Japanese red pine in forests. However, with the decreasing popularity of the pine’s leaves and branches as fuel and fertilizers, this led to eutrophication of the forest floors and the subsequent excessive growth of plant life which led to the matsutake being unable to grow as well as before. Coupled with the pine wood nematode which caused the pine trees to wilt, this greatly affected the amount of matsutake to be harvested, thus making it the premium food ingredient it is today.
In Japan, the prefectures which produce the most matsutake are Iwate, Yamagata (山形), Nagano, Kyoto, Hyogo, Wakayama (和歌山), Okayama (岡山), and Hiroshima (広島). As such, if you happen to be in these prefectures during autumn, do try their local matsutake dishes.
The matsutake can be found in many dishes but the more common ways would have to be grilling it and in a dobin mushi (土瓶蒸し – traditional Japanese seafood broth). Nowadays, many restaurants introduce an all-matsutake set meal during autumn where they make full use of this seasonal ingredient in every way imaginable. For example, in this set meal offered by Shouraitei (Japanese only) in Nagano Prefecture’s Ueda City (上田市), the matsutake can be found in the appetizer wine, dobin mushi, appetizer, boiled dish, grilled dish, sukiyaki (すきやき), tempura (天麩羅), chawanmushi (茶碗蒸し – steamed savory egg custard), and takikomi-gohan (炊き込みご飯 – rice seasoned with dashi and soy sauce, etc.). Depending on the set you choose, the amount of matsutake used and the number of dishes offered will differ and the prices range from 6,480 yen to a whooping 21,600 yen (inclusive of tax)! If a full meal may be too much for you, you can opt for a la carte dishes which should be less taxing on your wallet.
Last but not least, the kaki i.e. persimmon is something which you should not miss this autumn. Other than Okinawa (沖縄) Prefecture, this fruit is grown everywhere in Japan although the harvest volumes in the colder Tohoku Region (東北地方) and Hokkaido are limited due to the low temperatures. As such, you might want to visit the top 3 prefectures producing the most kaki i.e. Wakayama, Nara (奈良), and Fukuoka (福岡) to sample this autumn delicacy while you are in Japan. Although there are as many as 1,000 types of kaki in the world, the two main categories in Japan are the shibugaki (渋柿) i.e. sour persimmon and amagaki (甘柿) i.e. sweet persimmon. The shibugaki is hard even when it’s ripe and maintains its sourness. On the other hand, the amagaki is said to have mutated suddenly from the shibugaki variety where it is sour at first and gradually becomes sweet as it ripens.
As the shibugaki’s flesh is too tough and sour, it has to be processed or left to soften over time. To process the shibugaki, hot water or alcohol is usually added to the fruits straight after they are harvested. Depending on the variety of shibugaki, the handling method will differ. In terms of the fruit’s uses, the kaki can be sun-dried to become a snack while at Kagoshima, the fruits are used in onsen baths. Besides these, the kaki can be fermented with rice bran and made into products such as snacks, jam, yokan (羊羹), jelly, chocolates, ice cream, vinegar, wine, sherbet, and curry.
Wakayama Prefecture, which is the no. 1 producer of kaki, has a web page (Japanese only) offering ideas on how to incorporate the fruit into savory dishes and desserts. In the savory dishes section, other parts of the kaki tree can also be utilized e.g. the leaves are used to wrap the kaki no ha sushi (柿の葉寿司). Alternatively, the fruit can be put into the makizushi (巻き寿司) along with cucumber and egg strips. How about adding kaki to your curry, sweet and sour pork, grilled rolled bacon, or salads then? As for desserts, the suggested creations include a dizzying variety of sherbet, ice cream, yogurt, pudding, steamed bread, doughnuts, mille-feuille, juices, kanten (寒天 – agar jelly), manju (饅頭 – a type of Japanese confection), muffins, and cupcakes. You might want to try making some of these recipes at home when kaki is in season!
Having read so much about these four signature autumn foods, are you eager to treat your taste buds to a wonderful feast this season? Do grab a hold of them before they are gone and have a fun time exploring the endless ways which these ingredients can be utilized in!