Feast on a Japanese Summer – 5 Delights of the Season
Stepping out of the door I found myself slamming into a wall of heat and humidity the likes of which I had never experienced before. You see, I was used to a dry heat, baking temperatures soaring towards 40 degrees but with evenings cooling down that created a pleasant summer sensation. Japanese summer, however, is twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week of humidity… and I learnt to love it.
You see, it is easy to be worn down by weather but the Japanese have adapted to summer in the best way possible, by embracing it with food. The locals swear by unagi grilled eel while kakigori shaved ice is a godsend. But Japan is more than just eel and ice. The summer season is full of foods and here are five more to try.
If there is one sign of summer that never gets missed, it must surely be the ayu sweetfish. Found throughout the country in river after river, this delicacy is a staple at festivals during summer. You’ll often find them being grilled on skewers standing upright at yatai food stalls, waiting for passers-by to indulge in some festive summer feasting. The flesh is sweet, succulent and can be eaten whole, including the head and tail.
Everybody loves a piping hot beef shabu shabu dish in winter but the summer version of Japan’s beloved winter meal is a cool salad based around thin strips of pork meat. Rei means chilled or cold and the pork is prepared beforehand, left to cool then served with ingredients like ginger, tofu and a dash of the best summer flavour, ponzu, a citrus juice flavoured soy sauce. Rei shabu is a light and energetic dish that is most refreshingly satisfying during summer.
Making use of all parts of a chicken - plus a few other ingredients - yakitori are those incredibly addictive little skewers of grilled chicken and are a mainstay at festival stalls and izakaya pubs all over the country. Coated with secret sauces that are often made onsite by yakitori artisans, the best examples are grilled over a bed of binchotan white charcoal in bars that specialize in yakitori. The savoury-sweet aromas are a perfect summer experience.
A Tohoku region speciality, Morioka reimen hails from the town of Morioka in Iwate Prefecture. Now, Morioka is famous for its variety of noodle dishes but its reimen chilled noodles is the king - or queen - of summer foods here. The semi-translucent noodles are chewy and found floating in a chilled soup of beef and chicken stock. Toppings vary but will usually include Korean kimchi, giving the noodles a cool but spicy kick and, yes, a slice of watermelon. Don’t knock it until you try it. Watermelon is a summer staple in Japan and softens the kimichi punch just brilliantly.
If summer is synonymous with festivals in Japan, then tomorokoshi corn is the signal for summer. Briefly boiled before being grilled, the corn is brushed with a mixture of soy sauce, mirin and sugar. This creates an incredible savoury-sweet combination - the aromas emanating from festivals stalls selling this tomorokoshi are incredibly rustic. Don’t thumb your nose at this simple dish. It is a summer treasure.
Japan is a culinary heaven, with foods covering the whole range of seasons and sensibilities. Embracing the summer heat means embracing the food so the next time you step out in the hot summer sun, be sure to give these foods a try. You’ll be thankful you did.