Tomorrow is American Thanksgiving and I find myself in a bit of a dilemma. Living abroad for the past four years, far from home and family, has made me crave somewhat of a traditional holiday. I know I won’t be enjoying turkey (no oven in most Japanese homes) or the happy sounds of 20+ family members crammed around my dining room table, but I DO want to have something to nourish my family that reminds us of Thanksgivings past. In an effort to track down pumpkin (easy) and pecans (HARD), however, I got a great reminder of the Japanese foods I can enjoy at this time of year.
1. Pumpkin (kabocha) – Yes, as it turns out, finding pumpkin for my holiday pie was a cinch. But pumpkin in Japan is of a slightly sweeter variety and you can find it in all sorts of presentations – in soups, at a yakiniku barbecue restaurant and even in tempura form. My favorite preparation will always be the kabocha croquettes (think breaded balls of pumpkin pureed) made one Thanksgiving for me by my good friend in Tokyo.
2. Chestnuts (kuri) – Traveling in Asia in the fall, you can find chestnuts everywhere. In previous years, I used to lead tours to China and I’ll be darned if there wasn’t a chestnut vendor on every corner in Beijing in November! Here, the most common preparation is chestnuts and rice, a good hearty dish with a tiny dose of sweetness. But my neighbor brought me cooked chestnuts straight-up the other week and, while I was never a fan before, I think the taste is growing on me.
3. Mushrooms (especially matsutake variety) – The crates of mushrooms started appearing at our local market about a month ago. I held off on purchasing any, as my mother was visiting and is not a mushroom fan. She left this week though and I must admit, I am now scouring my cookbooks for good mushroom recipes. At a restaurant the other night, the soup in our set meal was not miso, but a strong mushroom broth with a single fungi floating in it for added flavor. The perfect thing to take away the chill of an autumn evening.
4. Persimmons (kaki) – Until this week, I have never knowingly eaten persimmon. It’s not for lack of desire, mind you. It’s just not a fruit you find commonly on the menu back home and somehow, I never bothered to buy any of the dried persimmons that one sees hanging from farmhouses EVERYWHERE in this country in mid-fall. But with a crate of persimmons staring me down at the market the other day, I snapped one up, brought it home and cut out the flesh to enjoy with a little cinnamon. I’m sure that’s not a traditional preparation but it sure tasted good!
5. One-pot dinners (nabe) – Alright, I admit. This last one is a bit of a stretch. But it’s late November and the days are finally getting quite chilly here in Kumamoto and all I want to do is make soup. It turns out I’m not the only one with these strong instincts. One of the traditional meals of the Japanese winter season is nabe, or a stew of nearly anything (region dependent) that is cooked in one pot. I might try my hand at a traditional nabe before the winter is out (maybe using basashi, or horsemeat, since Kumamoto is known for it) but if I’m too lazy to cook, there’s a nabe restaurant just outside our apartment building. I have a feeling the delicious smells will lead me there before too long!
What are your favorite autumn foods where you live? What can you not live without in the fall?