The abundance of the moment calls for sansho-ae
The burgeoning green hillsides are draped in wild wisteria. The vines cascade from the forest canopy like lavender veils. People flock to see their more regal relatives trained on trellises in parks and public spaces. There you can hear the riotous buzzing of a thousand bees who swarm the violet blossoms dangling like so many bunches of grapes.
We are in the midst of late April’s bounty, one of the best times for eating in Mirukashi and there is so much to enjoy at the table. Wakame, takenoko, and kinome, are the three dominant flavors that individually and in concert define this season when summer crests the horizon. Micro-seasons overlap and in each we find something on its way in, something fully arriving, and something waning. With a single ingredient we can trace three stages and its subtle shift in flavor as it comes into, passes through, and goes out of season. Hashiri is flavored with anticipation and delight in the return of a fleeting seasonal ingredient. The earliest harvests yield produce that is delicate, delicious, and still so rare. The first tender bite is a perfect reunion, sweetened by memories of seasons past and the thrill of abundance to come. From there we arrive at shun, the peak of plentitude and flavor, and find an ingredient in its prime that is rich and robust. A few more days pass and nagori brings the sorrow of parting as a season wanes. We savor one last time the ripe, passing flavor and look forward to its return in a year’s time when we circle back around the sun.
The sansho tree has fully leafed out, the leaves broad but still tender and potently fragrant. The abundance of the moment calls for sansho-ae, perhaps better known as kinome-ae, a creamy, tangy, vibrant green dressing. Takenoko takes on a ripeness as it nears the end of its season and offers a buttery, meaty base for the bold flavor of kinome ground into white miso. My passion for sansho in all forms has been intense and unwavering ever since I first encountered it just a few days into my first visit to Japan, long before I knew I would one days settle here. Kinome-ae offers a big earthy dose of sansho pleasantly mellowed by sweet white miso and with it I can indulge in the flavor on a grander scale. As its name implies, the prickly ash tree is prickly, or in fact thorny. You have to reach into its branches gingerly, careful to avoid the thin elongated spikes that grow between leaves and would prick a fingertip like a needle. It takes a bowlful of leaves to make kinome-ae and I delight in standing among the fragrant trees, my fingertips taking on the peppery scent as I gather them.
A sansho frond sports several small, jagged edged oval leaves along a central stem. As tender shoots, the stem is soft and vegetal but grows woody with age. Back in the kitchen, I strip the leaves from the stems of the cleanly washed fronds, a task that would seem tedious to many but I don’t mind it in the least. In these moments I’m reminded of a time decades ago, reading Willa Cather books borrowed from the elementary school library and pouring over stories of life on the frontier. What is it that delights me so about the poetics of picking and plucking? In my case the seeking soul that longs to know its place and purpose is quelled by the immediacy of gathering leaves from a tree in the yard from which to fashion an elegant and flavorful dish for dinner.
The ae of kinome-ae is written with a character that expresses harmony and peace. It is the same character that expresses the spirit of Japan, the wa in washoku, and ae dishes are distinctly Japanese, ingredients unified within a velvety dressing of flavors like miso, tofu, sesame, and kinome, flavors that stand as pillars of Japanese cuisine. Ae are nothing if not comforting, supremely soothing, and a healthful path to feeling full and fulfilled.