The seasons bring big changes to the flavors found on menus at restaurants throughout Japan. From incredible spring veggies and seafood to the sturdier winter varieties, there’s a lot of variety over the year.
I know this chapter may seem out of place in this book. I almost didn’t write it. But a friend of mine just happened to be traveling to Japan and actually asked the question about what was considered “in season.”
I imagine others will have this question too and thus this chapter was added. It’s not a deep-dive into every possible food during each season, but more of a brief intro into some things to look for.
Let’s dive into each season real quick and have a peek at what changes and food pop up at certain times of the year.
In this chapter:
- Haru no Aji
- Natsu no Aji
- Aki no Aji
- Fuyu no Aji
Haru no Aji
Haru no aji is seasonal cooking in the Spring.
Spring is the time when many of the common vegetables are just in bud, but there are many of the more bitter-flavored veggies ready at this time.
These bitter vegetables tend to have a tougher texture and so are typically boiled or fried.
Takenoko are bamboo shoots. In the Spring they’re just poking through the surface, before growing to become a full tree.
The young shoots are edible and, while tough, are solid like full-grown bamboo.
They are boiled in big pots and used in a variety of dishes such as tosani. Tosani is takenoko boiled in a soy sauce base with katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes).
Or you’ll probably more commonly see takenoko used in takenoko-gohan. This is where the takenoko is placed inside a rice cooker along with some other ingredients like shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt), and chicken.
Sansai literally translated into mountain vegetables. They’re found all over the hillsides near rice fields.
They’re super bitter and so they are boiled before being eaten. After they’re boiled they are typically cooled and consumed with shoyu and katsuobushi.
Sometimes they’re stir-fried with shoyu and sato (sugar).
Common types of sansai are: warabi, zemmai, fuki, and seri.
In the spring there are a few varieties of seafood you’ll find on the menu and in supermarkets.
- Tai – is sea bream. It has special meaning in many traditional events and you’ll see it used in special dishes for weddings or birthdays too.
- Sawara – is Spanish mackerel. Often you’ll see it filleted, salted, and grilled (called shio-yaki).
- Hamaguri – are clams. They are used in dishes vital to the hina-matsuri (the Doll’s Festival in March). They are typically cooked in their shells
- Asari – are short-necked clams. They are “in season” between February to April. You will find asari most commonly used in miso shiru (miso soup).
A quick note about sunadashi. The word translates to sand out. It’s a process where shellfish are soaked in saltwater for a couple of days so they can eject any sand inside the shell.
You’ll sometimes experience a hard crunch when enjoying a bowl of miso soup where the cook didn’t soak the shellfish long enough and some sand got into the soup. 🙂
After Spring comes the hot Summer and with it a whole new set of flavors the Japanese enjoy.
Natsu no Aji
Natsu no aji are the flavors found during summer.
The really crappy thing about summer in Japan is the hammering heat and humidity. Especially in the urban concrete jungle of Tokyo.
To combat this, the Japanese move toward using salt and vinegar in foods for more refreshing tastes.
Edamame is boiled and salted soybeans. They’re exceptionally popular paired with a beer in Japan. And while you can get edamame all year round, you’ll start seeing it more often as otoshi (a small dish given as a starter at izakaya).
Beer is also more popular in the summer and edamame is one of the most popular otsumami (drink snacks).
Nasu is eggplant. A prominent dish using nasu in the summertime is shigiyaki. It’s eggplant cut in half, then sliced on one end. Then it’s grilled along with neri-miso (a mix of sugar sake, ginger, and miso paste).
Ume is the Japanese apricot and is ready in June. The unripened ones, green in color, are used to make umeshu (ume flavored alcohol). The ripe ones are used to make umeboshi — a salted ume which itself is used throughout many dishes in Japanese cuisine.
Maguro is tuna, the highly popular fish used in nearly all sushi restaurants throughout Japan. While eaten throughout the year, Summer fishing months bring in more qualities of maguro.
Different parts of maguro have different names too. The most sought after being toro, which is the belly of the fish — desired for its rich flavor and higher oil content.
Katsuo is the bonito fish. You may recognize the name from the fish flakes called katsuobushi — which are made from this fish.
In the Summer one of the most popular sashimi is katsuo — and it’s seasoned with vinegar. And since it is seasoned already it’s usually not dipped in shoyu before eating.
Ayu is sweetfish. It is particularly popular in the Summer, in late July, because it’s slightly oilier and has better flavor.
They’re usually salted and grilled. Often you’ll find them at festivals skewered on a wood spike, standing straight up out of the grill while they cook.
Aki no Aji
Aki no aji are the unique Autumn flavors.
Autumn in Japan is a special time. The food takes a big leap up in quality compared to Summer because the plants are shedding their bitter flavor and ripening perfectly.
Even the seasonal fish are oilier and fattier than the previous seasons.
Matsutake is a highly sought after mushroom with a rich aroma and flavor. It’s used in a lot of Autumn dishes to add a ton of umami.
One of the most amazing ways to enjoy this mushroom is in a dish called horokuyaki. Where the mushroom is cooked on a hot stone inside an earthenware pot with the top on it. It sort of sears while also baking, and then slightly steaming.
Kuri is chestnuts. They are often eaten steamed or boiled. But most often you’re going to see them pop up in dishes during the Autumn.
A very common dish is the steamed rice and red bean dish, kuriokowa, where the two ingredients are paired with kuri — often in a rice cooker.
Satsumaimo is sweet potato. In Japan, you’ll often see it baked, or steamed, and eaten plain. There are some satsumaimo farms that produce the most incredibly sweet satsumaimo.
You’ll also see it sliced thin and used in tempura too. Or even mashed and used in a variety of traditional Japanese snacks.
Samma is saury. It’s a blue fish with a sword-like shape. It’s considered an Autumn fish because in the cool months it puts on some fat and becomes oilier — adding to the flavor.
You’ll likely see it salted and grilled — and if you enjoy fish, you’ll love this style of cooking. It’s crispy, juicy, and oh so full of flavor.
You’ll often see it topped with daikon oroshi (grated daikon radish) and soy sauce.
Saba is mackerel. It’s a real strong-smelling fish that loses its freshness quickly. So it’s often made with salt and vinegar to keep fresh longer.
A popular dish using saba is shimesaba. It’s sashimi but instead of eating the freshly sliced fish it’s prepared over the course of hours using a combination of salt and vinegar.
It is eaten raw, but not freshly raw — if that makes sense.
On the flip side of saba is aji. Aji is horse mackerel. No relation to a horse obviously.
It’s not a smelly fish and is often eaten as sashimi or sushi. But you’ll also see it on the menu at an izakaya, usually as ajifurai (fried aji).
Fuyu no Aji
Fuyu no aji is the seasonal flavors during the Winter.
Winter foods in Japan focus on warming the body with hotpot type meals and hearty, savory ingredients. The winter vegetables are naturally sweet and flavorful, perfect for these hotpot dishes.
Daikon is a Japanese radish. In the Summer it’s bitter, pungent, and strong, In the Winter, however, it becomes softer and sweeter.
You’ll find it grated and used as a condiment to things like sushi/sashimi still, but you’ll also find it cut into blocks and used in other dishes such as nabemono and oden.
Yuzu is a citrus fruit, often referred to as Chinese lemon. In the hot summer months, the yuzu is used to refresh and cool dishes.
In the Winter you’ll find the peel is used to add flavor to nabemono (hotpots). Or maybe even used in miso soup to create a yuzu-miso base.
Hakusai is Chinese cabbage. You’ll know Winter has arrived when all the Japanese supermarkets bring in hakusai by the truckload.
It’s cheap and large, which makes it a great value — and the main ingredient in nabemono dishes.
It’s also salt-pickled and used for condiments or side dishes. The salty flavor works well with hakusai because of the high water contents inside the plant.
This is anko as in the angler fish — not anko the red bean paste. Anko is one of those fish where everything is consumed, except the head and bones. The skin and everything else is often found in nabemono.
Fugu is a type of pufferfish. It’s is the infamous poisonous fish that must be prepared by a licensed chef.
Fugu is often eaten as sashimi, but in the winter it is found in nabemono too – plus some really potent hot sake drinks.
Kaki is oysters. They are eaten raw at some oyster bars found throughout Tokyo or even grilled to bring out a whole new side of the dish.
And there you have it — a quick look through the various flavors based on the season in Japan. Of course, this chapter isn’t all-encompassing but does give you an idea of how tastes change throughout the year.
Up next we’ll show you some things to avoid in Tokyo.
Next Chapter: What to Avoid