For many years now, I have enjoyed participating in a monthly book club, whose members are committed to reading many of the Japanese literary classics in translation. It took us three years to investigate the 1000+ page tome “The Tale of Genji” Genji Monogatari: widely considered to be the world’s first novel and one of the high points of the Japanese canon. It was a brilliant education on all manner of Japanese culture in the courtly Heian period (794-1185). Of course I was particularly attuned to any mention of seasonal flora and over time I became increasingly curious about a plant that blooms in early summer called Deutzia u-no-hana (Deutzia crenata). Unlike many of the plants in Genji monogatari which I have seen in domestic gardens even now, Deutzia seemed conspicuously absent. Finally through almost detective like inquiry, I managed to track it down but it is certainly not so common these days. It happens to be blooming now at a local temple.
It has very delicate white petalled flowers that blossom in a spiked shape. In Heian period waka poetry the blooms are alluded to as snow or sometimes as crested waves. Interestingly this is a plant that exemplifies how aesthetic tastes change over time. Almost forgotten now by many Japanese who prefer the bright colors of pansies and roses, u-no-hana had its hey day during the Heian period particularly amongst the aristocratic courtiers about a thousand years ago. The favorite Heian color was white and this is evident in many of the most celebrated flowers of the period: plum blossom, cherry blossom, deutzia and chrysanthemum. Moonlight, dew, and snow were also considered to be white. The Deutzia flower was considered to be a symbol of early summer. It was paired with the small cuckoo hototogisu in Heian period paintings. At the Imperial court, aristocrats “wore the seasons” and the layer kasane of the multilayered kimono appropriate for early summer was named “u-no-hana”: characterized by a white surface and a green interior. Even up until the late Muromachi (1333-1573) period, in the “Secret Transmissions of Ikenobo” (an important historical manual for Ikebana flower arrangement published in 1542), the Deutzia flower was one of the symbolic flowers for May. At some point at time, due to the vagaries of history, u-no-hana fell out of favour and while it still exists here and there, it is no longer as exalted as it once was.
Another small plant whose brightly colored flowers really stand out at the moment is the Chinese Ground Orchid shi-ran. (Shi means purple and ran means orchid). It’s widely planted in Japanese gardens: along pathways, in beds and also in pots. The plant is also used for medicinal purposes traditionally as well as to make glue.
The name of the 21st micro-season refers to the appearance of bamboo shoots takenoko . It seems a bit late for takenoko as they have already been stocked in supermarkets for a few weeks now. The truth is that there are several varieties of bamboo popular in Japan and each has its own harvest period. The larger Japanese Timber Bamboo (Phyllostachys bambusoides) is actually producing new shoots now. However, the most widely cultivated bamboo in Japan is Mōsō bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis), and this is also the most popular source of edible bamboo shoot in Japan and China. it tends to be dug up just when the newly emerging “head” of the shoot comes out of the ground. Although it is considered to be a seasonal delicacy, there is quite a lot of work in its culinary preparation and to tell the truth I prefer to be a guest rather than a cook when it comes to eating it. After the outer husks are removed, the rich soft flesh must be boiled for up to 2 hours to remove the toxins. Japanese people like to use nuka (rice husks in a powdered form) when boiling as it helps to remove the natural bitterness. After that, it is usually cooked with bonito flakes and I particularly like it when it is served with the fresh new leaves of the Japanese Pepper tree sansho.
Historically, in the classical poetic tradition, the senses of sight, sound and smell were elevated as elegant sensations while taste was dismissed as common and vulgar. However by the mid Edo (1600 -1858) period, the preparation and presentation of food had become very popular and therefore many foods were “seasonalized” in Haiku poetry. In contrast to meat which tended to be available all year round, fish and vegetables were eaten only when they were seasonally available. One of the key words for understanding Japanese cuisine is shun (peak season or at its tastiest). For traditional cooks, there is a great deal of pride in serving food at its tastiest and bamboo shoots also feature as part of this culinary cycle.