In Japan, spring carries images of warmer weather, pink cherry blossoms, and sipping beer or tea at a hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, party. Spring is a time of new beginnings, as the school year and work year begin in April just as the cherry blossoms begin to bloom, and for the Japanese, spring is a very important season. Here are some seasonal spring food you should try this spring, to put you in the mood for spring and start this season off on the right foot.
While April is known for its cherry blossoms, March is for plum blossom. Japanese plums, or ume, can be eaten all year round as they are often pickled in what is known as umeboshi, which are sour and salty and often enjoyed as fillings in rice balls. The packaging of these ume chips is reminiscent of the pink of plum trees, and the flavor of the chips is sweet and sour like the fruit of the plum tree. You can usually see these chips and other ume flavored snacks appear on the shelves of Japanese supermarkets and convenience stores when the weather starts to get warmer with spring around the corner.
Sakura is the Japanese word for cherry blossoms, which begin to bloom in April. Mochi is Japanese rice cake dough made from pounded gluttonous rice flour and water. The Sakura Mochi gets its pink color traditionally from strawberry jam mixed in to it, and is wrapped in a pickled cherry blossom tree leaf. Inside the cake, there is pounded anko Japanese sweet red bean filling. Japanese people often enjoy eating sakura mochi with Japanese green tea while doing hanami, or cherry blossom viewing. There are many regional variations on this traditional sweet, so if you do any traveling during the spring in Japan, be sure to sample all the different types of this delicacy.
Japan is notorious for putting a Japanese take on western candy, especially Kit Kats. These Kit Kats, light pink and cherry blossom flavored, are found no where else perhaps except Japan, so if you see these on the shelf of your local convenience store or supermarket, they are definitely worth at least a sampling.
Spring is the season for strawberries in Japan, which are sold in supermarkets, but also as first grade gifts in department stores, sold for up to 4000 yen. A popular spring activity among Japanese people is to go to green houses to pick strawberries, which is called いちご狩り (ichigo kari) in Japanese.
Ichigo Daifuku are a Japanese sweet made from glutinous rice and sweet red or white azuki bean paste (called anko), with a whole or strawberry inside them. These are a very popular traditional sweet, and are sold in convenient stores, supermarkets, food stands near traditional architecture, and department stores, and are best enjoyed with a cup of Japanese green tea.
Takenoko are bamboo shoots and a popular vegetable used in spring dishes, such as takenoko gohan or bamboo shoot rice. Bamboo shoots are pealed, cut up, boiled, chopped, and cooked in rice with fried tofu, and flavored with soy sauce, fish stock, sweet rice wine, and sugar. Sometimes Japanese mushrooms are also used in this traditional dish.
Ikanago are young Japanese sand eels and a delicacy in Hyogo Prefecture and Kansai region of Japan. They are caught between February and March and seasoned with soy sauce, sweet rice wine, sugar and ginger, and cooked until they become almost caramelized. It is said that the name of this dish literally means, “nails that hit the spot” and was named so because the baby fish were thought to resemble bent nails. You can find Ikanago no kugi ni being sold at food stands on the sides of shopping street arcades in Hyogo, and are often enjoyed on top of rice.
I hope you have the opportunity to try these foods on your next spring visit to Japan!