Outside my kitchen window a party of small, cold-hardy songbirds splash about in a flooded pot of dormant water lilies. Their giddy chatter and cheerful presence never fails to brighten my day. But today is already a bright day. The sun beams from a clear sky as if to celebrate this first day of a new seasonal year according to Japan’s lunisolar calendar. It tracks micro-seasonal shifts in the cyclical and interdependent ecology upon which all life depends and feels to me, a far more soulful and accurate way to mark time than the Gregorian calendar.
Like a giddy child, I went to where I know the earliest fukinoto emerge and there they were, as plump and proud as the mint-green warbling white-eyes that flit between the newly blossoming branches of the ume trees in my orchard. Fukimiso, a dish in which sweet white miso tempers the bud’s bitterness, is always the first thing I make when the first of the butterbur buds emerge. It’s my culinary ritual to celebrate this first taste spring.
Last year I became fond of fukimiso glazed namafu, a supremenly elegant version of a very humble dish, dengaku. Namafu, a Kyoto delicacy made from refined wheat gluten mixed with short grained mochi rice, comes in subtle flavor variations like mugwort and sesame. But consisting of sixty percent water, namafu is texture more than flavor. Airy but chewy, it’s like a textured canvas on which to paint bitter-sweet fukimso.
It will still be cold for a good long while. We’ll continue to bundle up in wool and down and keep the stove burning well into March. But as a poem that I have loved deeply since the first time I read it in The Book of Tea says, “To those who long only for flowers, fain would I show the full-blown spring which abides in the toiling buds of snow-covered hills.” Beneath the frosty organic litter still blanketing the hills, the earth is stirring. Much of it goes unseen, but like crocuses in New England, suisen paperwhites, ume plum blossoms, and fukinoto butterbur buds brave the final flurries of winter and bloom unfathomably early, offering us their delicate, hopeful beauty.