Autumn is the season for healthy appetites. A time to indulge in the bounty of the harvest and nourish ourselves for the cold months ahead. Check out five popular seasonal foods that symbolize hearty autumn eating in Japan –
1. Matsutake Mushroom Soup
One of the more notable smells of autumn comes from a hearty mushroom soup called matsutake dobin mushi. The dish is served in a clay teapot called a dobin, enjoyed by pouring out the broth into a small cup and picking out the vegetables to enjoy. The soup consists of a bonito stock, seasonal vegetables, slivers of chicken or shrimp, and the star ingredient, aromatic pine mushrooms called matsutake, which contribute a unique smoky flavor. It can be complimented with a few drops of citrus, such as yuzu or the green-skinned sudachi fruit.
While matsutake dobin mushi is available in restaurants around the country, the price range can differ depending on whether domestic or imported mushrooms are used—matsutake cannot be cultivated and are becoming scarce in Japan, leading to very high domestic prices.
2. Salt-Grilled Sanma
Pacific saury, known as sanma in Japan, is the savory dish of fall; the sleek, silver fish is best enjoyed grilled with salt, called sanma no shioyaki, due to its distinctive oiliness and fatty content. Sanma no shioyaki is served whole, so you should start eating from the crispy skin, adding a squirt of lime juice, daikon radishes, or soy sauce to the flesh as a light garnish, and use chopsticks to pick out portions until only the bones are left.
Salt-grilled sanma can be enjoyed in traditional pubs with a mild sake, but if you’re looking for an extraordinary street food experience, walking out the east exit of Meguro Station on the first Sunday of September will land you at the smoke-filled Sanma Matsuri, a festival where over 5,000 grilled saurys are given away to visitors to celebrate the hauls brought in from Iwate prefecture.
3. Steamed Shinmai Rice with Gingko Nuts
The first harvests of rice in autumn, called shinmai, or “new rice,” are considered to have a completely different taste than the rice harvested year-round. Japanese will often say that new rice is moister, sweeter, and more aesthetically pleasing, something not to be missed if you’re visiting from late September towards the end of the year.
Mushrooms, sweet potatoes and chestnuts are also popular toppings for those seeking a vegetarian meal, but gingko nuts are a subtle accompaniment to new rice that doesn’t overpower its well-sought flavor.
4. Sweet Potato or Pumpkin Croquettes
To satisfy your fried food craving, you can sink your teeth into a sweet potato croquette. While croquettes are not considered an original Japanese food, the deep-fried delicacy evokes the image of an autumn comfort food for many across the country. Croquettes are often a homemade snack, but they can also be found in the food aisles of department stores such as the Tokyu Foodshow in Shibuya.
Unlike the standard American sweet potatoes, Japanese sweet potatoes have a drier texture, but taste creamy. Pumpkins may not have the “cinnamon and spice” image you may be accustomed to, but the rich, butternut-squash-like flavor does not disappoint when combined with the croquette’s hot, crispy, breading.
5. Candied Chestnuts
Candied chestnuts, or kuri-kinton, are a simple sweet treat in which chestnuts are steamed, mashed, and combined with a delicate confectionary sugar before being twisted into a bun shape using a cloth. Sweet potatoes may be added to heighten the flavor, and the snack is best enjoyed with a cup of hot tea.
Boxes of kuri-kinton are popular gifts for friends and family in the autumn. They are available wherever traditional sweets are sold, but Nakatsugawa city in Gifu is exceptionally famous for the treat, with many specialty shops, some of which have been in operation for more than a century.