Seasonality is arguably the foundation of Japanese cooking. The Japanese, as a people, are intrinsically tied to the concept of seasonality. This can be seen in the national holidays and countless festivals that celebrate the blooming of a flower, a fish coming in to season or a particular harvest. Kaiseki, widely viewed as the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine, is a culinary representation of the seasons. There is a careful consideration of the colors, flavors, textures and appearance of each dish. This thoughtfulness along with the use of ingredients that are in season and often locally sourced, serve to create a meal that is a complete representation of that particular season, to capture it’s ‘spirit’. Even the plates and garnishes for each course are carefully chosen not only to enhance the dish itself but to also serve as a further reflection of the seasonal theme.
When I started working in restaurant I began to eat out as much as I could afford. I wanted to see what everyone else was doing — how and why they were doing it and in doing so, add to my training and understanding of what I was learning. After several years at this restaurant, I had run out of opportunities for advancing in the kitchen but I wasn’t ready to leave yet. Working in that restaurant was an incredible and rare experience. My chef was open to teaching all of his employees anything they wanted to learn. All of his recipes were available to all of us, nothing was secret. This was not the norm. Eventually, an opportunity came up to work with him to help convert part of his dining room into a raw bar, so I took it. We served some sushi, sashimi, sashimi-based plates and cooked dishes. It was more of a modern take. The chef was one of the founders of the Asian-fusion movement and drew inspiration from multiple Asian cuisines. It was during this time, making fusion-y/contemporary sushi that I began to explore and really examine what other sushi restaurants in the Bay area were doing. I quickly realized that the concept of seasonality was completely absent in spite of the fact that the majority of those restaurants at that time were owned and/or operated by Japanese chefs. There were all the trappings: bamboo service for sake, too many shoji screens and sushi chef coats, and kitschy headbands. Still, there were over 600 sushi restaurants in the Bay area then and with a few exceptions, they all served from a static menu. The same list of fish all year round, maybe with a few seasonal ‘specialties’. Knowing first hand what was possible with regard to shipping and transport of ingredients, I never understood this. I have a couple theories but nothing that really explains how or why the most fundamental aspect of Japanese cuisine was lost from it’s most iconic representation in the U.S.
With sushi, seasons become more important, more complex. In Western cooking we generally are aware of, and cook around, four seasons. In Japanese cooking, and in particular sushi, they work around twelve or more seasons. These are made up of subdivisions of the four seasons that represent a ramping up period, a peak and a decline. Making sushi, you want the peak. A fish may be in season for 3 months but it’s those few weeks in the middle that you want when that fish is at it’s finest example. After it has spent time feeding and is fattened up in preparation for spawning, before it migrates to reproduce and depletes all the nutrients it has taken in. Ironically, one of the most popular fish in sushi restaurants, albacore, has one of the shortest fresh seasons of any fish. However, you can walk into almost any sushi restaurant in the U.S., anytime of the year and will likely find it on the menu. This can only be done by relying on frozen or processed product.
I think this is a point that highlights the differences in food culture. Here in the U.S. consumers generally expect and are accustomed to getting whatever they want, whenever they want at the compromise of quality. In Japan, consumers expect and are accustomed to getting the highest quality, knowing availablity is often very short. They embrace the ideas of impermanence, of the “fleeting nature of things” as they are pervasive in Japanese culture and history.
Why is all of this so important? Fundamentally, Japanese cuisine at it’s best is an exercise in restraint. How little can you possibly do to enhance and highlight a particular ingredient. To really succeed at this, you have to be able to rely on your ingredients to speak for themselves. They have to be of impeccable quality, pristine and the best example of that ingredient that you can get.
more to come…