Japan has plenty to offer for the discerning diner. With the changing seasons comes a range of tantalizing tastes, each offering a truly elevated epicurean experience. Spring weather brings delicately flavored vegetables and edible buds and shoots; and warmer ocean currents draw fresh seafood closer to the coast. Read on to discover more about this special time of year, imbued with fleeting sensations so beloved that the Japanese people actually dub them, “the taste of spring.” Here are just a few of the essential Japanese ingredients that are at their best in springtime.
8 Springtime Japanese Ingredients from the Garden
Fukinoto (Butterbur Sprout)
Foraged in the bracing chill of the mountains, fukinoto
are the pale green sprouts that surround the purple heart of the flower bud. Purged of their bitterness and made delicious through a simple process called akunuki
, fukinoto can then be chopped and fried with miso to make a dazzling relish, fried as tempura, or eaten over soba noodles.
Haru Kyabetsu (Spring Cabbage)
Although cabbage tops the list of necessary Japanese ingredients no matter the time of year, by far the best cabbage arrives in spring. Sweet, crisp leaves brimming with vitamins are wrapped around pork and vegetables, or stir fried lightly with thin slices of beef; haru kyabetsu
can also be garnished with salt and pepper, or used to make a special spring type of okonomiyaki
. Tender and juicy, with bright green outer leaves and yellow inner leaves, spring cabbage is a reminder that this season is all about freshness.
Unlike asparagus from South America or Europe, Japanese asparagus has a sweet, floral taste that is especially appetizing when steeped in a delicate dashi
broth. Asparagus can be served elegantly with takenoko
and garnished with fresh ki no me
(leaves of the pepper tree), another spring delicacy. Asparagus is also excellent in shiraae
, a Japanese vegetable dish featuring miso, soy sauce and sesame seeds.
Nanohana (Field Mustard)
Appearing just prior to the sakura blossoms, the young shoots of the nanohana
herald the coming of spring. The shoots have a deliciously light flavor and are cooked before the flower blooms, simmered in a light dashi soy sauce. They can also be enjoyed as part of a salad, or as the nanohana-zuke
salt pickles so renowned in Kyoto for their artful preservation of the flower’s natural shape.
Shinjagaimo (New Potatoes)
Harvested in spring rather than autumn like typical potatoes, shinjagaimo
possess a thinner skin and retain more water, thus making them sweet and succulent. Their high water content also means they do not keep very long and so must be prepared and eaten soon after harvesting. New potatoes are wonderful in nikujaga
(literally, “meat and potatoes”), or as a splendid addition to a spring miso soup.
Sora Mame (Broad Beans)
Beans comprise some of the most essential Japanese ingredients. While varieties such as azuki and natto may be more familiar, sora mame
—literally dubbed, “sky beans” for the tendency of the pods to grow pointing towards the heavens—should not go unheralded. Plump, flavorful and rich in fiber, they taste best when first shelled and make excellent snacks, especially when boiled in salted water or grilled in their pods. Sora mame are also popular as kakiage
vegetable tempura or even as a tasty accent to plain steamed rice.
Takenoko (Bamboo Shoots)
Only three bamboo varieties produce these edible shoots, so they must be prepared quickly after harvesting to prevent bitterness. While bamboo shoots are available year-round, dried, canned or in vacuum sealed packs, they lack the crunch and subtlety of fresh bamboo in spring. Takenoko
is found in a large variety of vegetable dishes, but takenoko gohan
, or bamboo shoots on rice, is a quintessentially spring dish.
Zenmai (Royal Fern or Flowering Fern)
This fern grows in moist woodlands and can also be cultivated at home, both as a garden plant and a spring vegetable. The name zenmai
means “spring coil” or “mainspring,” referring to the shape of the curled frond. After the young fronds are collected in early spring, they are then boiled in water with soy sauce, vinegar and sugar. Zenmai is often paired with takenoko, or simmered and salted with other vegetables. Known widely throughout the country, zenmai is an indelible part of Japanese spring fare.
6 Springtime Japanese Ingredients from the Sea
Asari (Littleneck Clam)Asari
are large, soft clams with patterned brown and cream shells found in coastal waters all over Japan as the weather warms into summer. This seasonal spring food is commonly eaten in miso soup, or steamed with sake and green onions. Clams, in all their wonderful diversity, are essential Japanese ingredients for springtime cooking.
Hamaguri (Hard Clam)
Much like asari clams, these white-shelled mollusks are found along the coast or cultivated in farms. Although typically eaten in soups, grilled, steamed, or served in a hotpot of mixed seafood, by far the finest way to eat them is as hamaguri
sushi, a juicy bite of the ocean made especially delectable after being parboiled then carefully marinated in broth.
Sawara (Spanish Mackerel)
Considered the highest quality mackerel in Japan for its succulent white flesh, sawara
can be cooked any number of ways, whether as sushi nigiri, salt-grilled shioyaki, or marinated in a teriyaki sauce and grilled. This fish is common in Japanese waters throughout spring, although a variety known as kan sawara
also appears during colder weather.
In late spring, as the warm waters bring schools of shirasu
(baby sardines and anchovies) past the Japanese coast, it is possible to eat this popular seafood raw. Nama shirasu don
is a bowl of steamed rice topped with a garnish of raw whitebait that acts in perfect concert with the rest of the meal. For maximum freshness, this delicate meat of the ocean should be served and savored as quickly as possible.
Although it can also be fried, the “dancing icefish” is a Japanese delicacy primarily known for being eaten live. Small, translucent fish lacking fins or bones, these exquisite creatures are best enjoyed straight out of the water, preferably accompanied by a bowl of vinegar. For those searching for an experience surpassing even the freshest sushi, shirauo
is a surprisingly refreshing spring dish.
Tai (Red Snapper)
Considered by Japanese people to be the king of white fish, tai
are abundant off the coast of Japan and most especially around Okinawa. Spring marks their breeding season, with April being a particularly good time to indulge in the thickest, ripest cuts of sushi and sashimi. The kobu dai
caught in the Naruto Strait, their muscles made robust from fighting strong tides, are particularly well regarded as a spring luxury.
Springtime Goodness Blooms with Essential Japanese Ingredients
The return of warmer weather in spring brings many wonderful delicacies and fresh flavors to home kitchens and restaurants across Japan. As buds sprout and fish return to the coast, visitors have the opportunity to enjoy unique Japanese ingredients not found at other times of the year—the taste of spring should be experienced while it lasts. Stay with Savor Japan for the latest on Japan's seasonal and luxury ingredients, as well as the restaurants shaping these ingredients into the finest culinary creations in Japan.
Disclaimer: All information is accurate at time of publication.