An introduction to seasonal eating in Japan

LucGougeonJapaneseVegetables

(Photo by Tartlime)

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a series of stories called Seasonal Eating in Japan. Throughout the year, Luc Gougeon will introduce us to tasty recipes that use some of the strange produce foreigners encounter in Japanese supermarkets.

By Luc Gougeon

If you live in Japan, you don’t need to join the trendy crowd of the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City to fulfill your desire to partake in seasonal eating. Before the advent of cheaper air travel and temperature controlled containerized transportation, seasonal eating was pretty much the way people ate all over the world. When I was a kid in Montreal, exotic fruits in January were the exception, not the norm. Finding new ways of importing and exporting food seem to be part of our human nature. After all, wasn’t America discovered on a quest to find a shorter route to fuel the European demand for exotic spices?

After spending some time in Japan, you will probably feel the need to buy some expensive imported food. Cravings for cheese, Mexican food or pita bread are a reminder of how much food is linked to our culture, and though it can be comforting to prepare familiar dishes from home, it’s not always easy. I’ve found that a lot of my favorite old recipes don’t mesh well with available local ingredients. While avocados taste the same here, it’s really hard to prepare guacamole without fresh coriander, which is not readily available in Japan. As a Canadian, I also really miss poutine, which is prepared with an “impossible to find in Japan” type of cheddar cheese.

What’s the solution? I found that the best option for me was to immerse myself in seasonal Japanese cooking. By doing so, I can eat fresh healthy food and save a lot of money while diminishing my carbon footprint. When you think about it, that heavy glass jar of imported American salsa has to travel a really long way.

Every time you see international chains like KFC, Pizza Hut or Starbucks in Japan, you are seeing food globalism at work. The traditional diet of the Japanese has been turned upside down by the popularity of pasta and bread, two types of food not traditionally produced in Japan. Some Japanese versions of Western foods are delicious and some are really bad — it’s up to you to discover.

In response to the rise of the global food economy, the Slow Food movement was created in 1989, originally to protest the opening of the first McDonalds in Rome. The Slow Food movement promotes local cultural cuisine and local agriculture. Japanese grandmothers might not know anything about Slow Food, but they have been practicing its tenets for hundreds of years. The climate of Japan allows for such a way of cooking throughout the year.

This year, I’ll introduce you to some of the seasonal products you can expect to encounter in your local market and supply some tips on cooking with them. I hope you’ll try out the recipes featuring these ingredients, and share your own comments and questions about seasonal foods that pique your curiosity, either through the comments section on each article or by emailing me at wideislandview (at) gmail (dot) com.

The first vegetable I’ll feature is goya, that curiously bumpy green vegetable that shows up in markets in abundance during the summer. Click here to read on!