Relating to and through flavor
As autumn gives way to winter we find ourselves in a season of abundance and loss, of beauty dazzling in the face of death and decay. The maple trees blaze red until denuded by wind and rain. A praying mantis expires in situ moments after laying a frothy capsule of eggs in a final act of optimism. Meanwhile we wait with bated breath for one of the most sacred and celebrated of ingredients, shinmai, the year’s new crop of rice. Great harvests fill the horn of plenty just as light, warmth, and life wane.
A full belly satiates the body and a bountiful rice harvest offers satiety to the soul. It fills the larder, inaugurates the winter sake brewing season, and of course brings countless pleasures to the table. The season of shinmai coincides with a myriad of gifts from the wild that pair perfectly with the sweet nuttiness of new rice – ginko nuts from trees with emblematic fan shaped leaves in a dazzling shade of yellow, mukago tubers dangling from jungly wild mountain yam vines that seem too thin to hold their weight, and mushrooms galore, including the most prized of all growing under cover on the forest floor, matsutake.
Matsutake is a luxury ingredient intimately tied to the taste of autumn in Japan. Shinmai and matsutake alone are a good enough reason to travel to Japan this time of year. And yet one of my my most memorable encounters with matsutake was in Maine. Just days before our flight back to Japan, as we were cleaning and packing and preparing the house to hibernate through the winter without us, our dear friend Elaine pulled into the driveway. She had been out foraging all afternoon and having found a few small matsutake she brought them to us knowing we would fully appreciate the distinct delicacy. We invited her in to stay for a bite and Hanako roasted the matsutake in tin foil in the oven with a splash of sake, a spritz of lime, and a sprinkle of salt. It was a sublime moment of sisterhood, an impromptu gathering of three weary women on an autumn evening in mid-coast Maine, connected by our shared love of that place we all call home and a culinary perspective born of intimate connections to Asian cultures, encapsulated in the flavor and aroma of freshly foraged matsutake mushroom.
Until recently the memory of that evening in Maine stood out above any other encounter with these mushrooms-of-the-pines I’ve had in Japan. That was until we rounded a bend in the road leading into Aso Kuju National Park last week and saw a man selling honey and locally foraged fresh matsutake mushrooms from the back of his truck. We crossed our fingers that he would still be there when we returned from our hike. Matsutake gohan after a long day in the mountains sounded divine. We drove out of the mountains that afternoon with great anticipation only to find the he and his mushrooms had departed. But the next morning we packed a cooler in the car and drove straight back. That night we sat on the floor at a low table in our rented cottage and ate charcoal grilled steaks of Aso’s famed red cows and matsutake cooked in new rice. But the the memory now filed next to matsutake in Maine was made the next day. Hanako fashioned the leftovers into onigiri that we ate on an enormous flat rock above the black lava sand flats of Aso’s active Nakadake caldera. There, in that lunar landscape with the caldera’s steam rising in the background, we dined on the most seasonal pairing of ingredients possible.
On our last morning in Aso we packed our cooler with mushrooms to take home. As we settled back into the rhythms of daily life this week we let the taste of matsutake gohan transport us back to our week in the wilds of Aso, and of matsutake grilled in the oven bring us closer to our beloved home and community in Maine, a place and people that feel particularly far away right now. This year we feel the gaping absence of time and space shared with our friends and families. But that loss itself has revealed an abundance of fellowship and love preserved in vivid memories. And it has reinforced for me the power of food and flavor to reanimate those memories and transport the mind and heart back to the places and spaces we love while drawing the feeling of reconnecting with our tribes a little closer.