In Japan, September is the beginning of autumn. Japan is no different from other countries with certain dishes and ingredients strongly associated with fall. Autumn is also called 旬の食材 (shun no shikuzai) which can be literally translated to “season of food”. ?A deep awareness of seasonality is a defining part of Japanese culture, a marker of elegance and sophistication that runs across many spheres of life. A proper Japanese chef will place a big premium on seasonal ingredients. In his hands, people will eat what he finds at the moment, when it’s freshest and tastiest. But eating seasonally is about more than just taste; it’s about deepening awareness of there and now, about building a deep texture into life that goes hand-in-hand with the progression of the cycles of nature. For the Japanese, that’s just common sense rooted in culture and history.
First of all, let’s talk about the “new rice,” the first of the rice harvested each autumn. New rice is considered softer, whiter and shinier, better than “older rice” (that is, rice reaped more than one year ago). Of course, rice in Japan is more than a staple food, it’s shot through with ritual meanings. Japanese people eat rice all year round, of course, but autumn is the time to appreciate the subtle aroma of freshly picked rice. Usually the period during which one can call rice “new” lasts from the autumn harvest through December. But there’s so much more to autumn food than rice. In fact, there’s a Japanese saying that “Autumn is the season to eat,” as fall specialties are considered the best of the yearly cycle.
The specialty that Japanese people will think of first is sanma, a fish so seasonal its Japanese name literally translates to “Autumn knife fish.” In the West, sanma is formally known as “Pacific saury,” but more commonly referred to as “mackerel pike.” ?In the fall, Pacific Ocean currents bring massive schools of mackerel pike to the Japanese coast, so the fish is hugely fresh and abundant. Full of omega-3, sanma is spectacularly fatty and delicately flavored. Grilled over an open flame, it’s the epitome of fall cooking. In early autumn it’s almost obligatory to eat grilled sanma lightly seasoned with a bit of salt or with a mixture of soy sauce and grated daikon, aka Japanese radish.
Then there’s the matsutake mushroom. This kind of mushroom is difficult to find, so it’s extremely expensive. This passion for these deeply scented mushrooms could be compared to the European enthusiasm for truffles. People appreciate matsutake chiefly for its unique aromatic fragrance. Savory rice with matsutake mushrooms is a popular choice, but the most glorious matsutake dish is dobin mushi, which is lightly flavored clear broth with matsutake mushrooms and vegetables. In Japan, sophisticated cuisine is always light and delicate, making dobin mushi the quintessence of autumnal Japanese high cuisine. Traditionally, it is cooked and served in a teapot.
Autumn is also a time to see ginko nuts on the plate at Japanese restaurants. People will surely find one or two of them in the dobin mushi. A few ginko nuts on a plate are enough to evoke an autumn landscape, full of ginko trees turned completely yellow.
In terms of fruits, the most popular in autumn would be kaki, which is known as persimmon in the West. The brownish-orange color of kaki is the official color of autumn in Japan. Peeled and cut into segments, kaki is the perfect afternoon snack this time of year and also delicious after a meal.
Even Japanese convenience stores nod to seasonality with specialities such as oden hotspot starting in September.