TOKYO, July 13 — Snap, crackle, pop. The sound of the charcoal grill being fired up and of fish skin crisping. The slippery slurping of cold noodles, slick with the tang of umami. That’s the sound of summer arriving in Japan.
Dining according to the seasons is a way of life in most temperate countries. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in Japan, where food has been elevated to an art form and a national obsession.
In autumn when the leaves are fiery and gold, there is the delicately sweet kaki or persimmon, enjoyed either fresh and crunchy or dried, with a softer bite and more intense flavour.
When the temperatures drop further, there are wintry dishes such as nabe, a traditional Japanese hotpot dish, and bowls of shiruko (sweet adzuki bean soup) to keep you warm.
Come springtime, the season of sakura or cherry blossoms, subtler flavours prevail: fresh bamboo shoots, simply grilled over charcoal or as takenoko gohan (bamboo rice), and sakura ichigo (literally “cherry blossom strawberries”) or white strawberries.
And now it is summer in Japan.
Rather than a single measure, summertime flavours can be a mouthwatering contrast of smoky, hot grilled foods and refreshing chilled specialties full of juicy crunch.
Perhaps the clearest sign that summer has arrived in Japan is the sight of skewers of fish, jaws down and tails up, being grilled over hot charcoal. Known as ayu, this tiny freshwater fish is treasured for its sweet flesh. So sweet, it is considered more refreshing than even melons!
Another popular grilled item on the summer menu is yakitori or grilled chicken on skewers. Though available all year round, the summer months are when a stick of kawa (chicken skin) or reba (chicken liver) is best appreciated with a cold beer.
Yakitori connoisseurs learn early to head to the shops early if they want their fill of the most sought after part of the chicken, the bonjiri or chicken tail. Also known quirkily as the bishop’s nose, there’s only one of these per bird so they run out fast.
Once you’ve experienced its hot, rich and oily taste, you’d always make it a point never to be late. The early bird gets the bird’s delicious derrière, if you’d pardon the mixed metaphor.
Grilled foods don’t all have to be enjoyed on skewers though. Perhaps the most famous summer food (at least for those of us who aren’t Japanese) is unagi or freshwater eel.
Walking past a sunlit river in Japan, you can’t help but wonder if your future meal of charcoal-grilled unagi is still swimming in its waters. Be it a bowl of unadon (eel brushed with a sweet and savoury sauce atop rice ) or unaju (fillets of higher grade eel layered inside a jubako or traditional Japanese lacquered box), know that you’re in for a treat.
Different regions in Japan have their own summer delicacies. In Kyoto, where tofu making is a centuries-old craft, order some hiyayakko or cold tofu dressed with a simple soy sauce and topped with green onions, perilla leaves or yuzu rind.
Down south in Okinawa, goya champuru (bitter gourd stir-fried with tofu, meat and eggs) is considered a cure for the heat. Further north in Morioka, the capital city of Iwate Prefecture, look out for the celebrated Morioka reimen — cold noodles topped with kimchi, cucumber and the indispensable hard boiled egg.
Speaking of cold noodles, other ways to enjoy them include zaru udon and zaru soba (wheat and buckwheat noodles) as well as hiyashi chuka, chilled ramen noodles served with strips of ham, omelette, tomatoes and cucumber.
There’s something wonderful about enjoying your zaru soba by dipping these buckwheat noodles in a dashi based sauce. The very act seems to welcome summer in all its glory. Every noisy slurp is followed by a smile: satisfaction.
Time for something sweet to end your summer repast. Fruits are an obvious choice and the reigning champion of summer fruits has to be the watermelon.
Juicy and refreshing, watermelons are a popular gift during summer, complete with a handsome bow, and a picnic staple where picnickers sprinkle a little salt to accentuate the taste of the fruit.
Some children even play a game of smack the watermelon whilst blindfolded, making for a juicy and very messy piñata. But it’s summer after all; there’s no better time to have some fun. And you can devour the mess you make, and such a sweet mess it is too.
No surprise then, watermelons are also enjoyed as another chilled treat — kakigori or shaved ice topped with syrup. Besides watermelon syrup, other summer flavours for kakigori include strawberry, melon and an enervating “rainbow” option.
For something creamier and less icy, you can’t go wrong with ice cream. Japanese ice cream benefits from the high quality local milk and cream, particularly from Hokkaido.
Less sugar is typically used to retain the natural milky flavour, resulting in a paler scoop. Enjoy “safe” options such as hakutō (white peach), black tea and sweet potato, but also look out for more unusual ones such as ikasumi (squid ink), wasabi and sweet sake.
Whatever you go for, rest assured summer in Japan tastes like the season itself: vibrant, joyous and full of hope for the best yet to come.
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