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In time for Japan’s fleeting sakura feasting

Japan’s ongoing sakura season is an explosion of all things deliciously cherry blossom, offering a plethora of edible treats with the distinct imprint of this short lived, fair-weather friend

Sakura mochi
Sakura mochi (Istockphoto)

Ever the Japanophile, one of my favourite things to do at this time of the year, is to fire up the dormant ‘Sakura Navi’ app on my phone. For, this one accurately tells me the almost exact dates when cherry blossoms will start to flower (kaika) and reach full bloom (mankai). With a word and adjective for virtually everything related to the beloved sakura or cherry blossom season, for the denizens of the Land of the Rising Sun, this is perhaps the most looked forward to event in the nation’s geo-social calendar. One that enjoys a short, month-long tenure that’s filled with beauty and anticipation.

Moving from south to north of the archipelago, at last check, the kaika had started to make its presence felt a little south of the capital of Tokyo. This flowering is expected to reach its pastel pink-white-mauve mankai climax on March 21 (give and take a few days) in Tokyo. This will be the time when people will go on company sponsored cherry blossom viewing (hanami) parties. More like picnics, where they’ll sit down on tatami mats under the flowering trees that dot parks and public places, like Ueno Park in central Tokyo. Taking in the heady aroma of the blossoms (to me, a sort of honeysuckle-meets-mild jasmine) and indulging in a virtual smorgasbord of sakura-flavoured delicacies. The floral, ever so bitter tasting notes and blushing hues of the blossoms permeating everything from sweets to even sakura-flavoured alcoholic drinks like soju and sake.

Bloomin’ tasty

Lucky as I was to be in Japan during the cherry blossom season a few years ago and luckier to be in the company of Japanese friends I was staying with, my initiation into the realm of all things sakura was a memorable one. And there couldn’t have been a better initiation than being handed a plump sakura mochi at my very first hanami party. A crucial element of any cherry blossom viewing session, this iteration of a traditional pounded rice dumpling is the chewy sum of its anko sweet red bean core made with adzuki beans. This is then ensconced in a pink coloured mochi exterior with a salted sakura leaf wrapping the portly dumpling in a delicate embrace. Giving a nice briny, savoury balance to the sweet lusciousness held within.

Also read | Asia’s love affair with sweet bean preparations

Similar to a mochi is a dango. More specifically in this case, a sakura dango. This seasonal delicacy is made up of three tiny mochi dumplings impaled into a skewer. Pink and white are to represent the blossoms and the green, the aforementioned sakura leaf. The dango skewer is often dipped in a sweet glaze made from sugar, sweet yellow miso paste and soy sauce, the latter imparting a subtle umami hint to the snack.

Dango skewers.
Dango skewers. (Istockphoto)

Though they’re usually golden brown in colour and resemble waffles, the fish-shaped taiyaki morphs into a pink, special seasonal sakura taiyaki this time of the year. However, I’ve got to admit that these ones are not very different in taste to a regular taiyaki with the same anko paste as the filling, and thus not my favourite sakura season goody. But the wobbly sakura flavoured milk pudding that gets its jiggle from the use of the seaweed-based agar agar coagulant is a delicious taste and sensation that dances on the tongue.

Savoury surprise

The season also calls for a few essential savoury must eats. These take the form of the number one packed, set meal of the hanami bento. Neatly packed in compartmental lacquered boxes, these lunch meals hold a specific number of items. You’re sure to find tofu pouches stuffed with sushi rice called inarizushi, the almost gossamer soft layered tamagoyaki (Japanese-style omelette) and a special type of fish cake called hanami kamaboko. These are coloured pink and white to mirror the colours of the sakura.

Also popular during this time are rice balls called onigiri. These can be shaped either into round orbs or into upstanding triangles and are stuffed with an assortment of spring ingredients like pickled umeboshi plums, crab or tuna mayonnaise salad or grilled salmon. And yes, oftentimes one finds a bit of the actual salted cherry blossoms cocooned within the onigiri’s plump belly.

Cherry good

But the season is not only about the traditional sweets and savoury preparations. Given Japan’s great love for fusing the traditional with the modern are a range of sakura-themed and flavoured packaged treats. These, one can pick up at some of the country’s famous ubiquitous discounted chain supermarkets. Like the iconic Don Quijote, fondly called “Donki” by the locals.

It morphs into a limited edition haven of sakura themed goodies come cherry blossom season. I’ve picked up everything from sakura-flavoured white chocolate-dipped Pocky biscuit sticks and the Japanese obsession of unique flavoured Kit Kats to small bottles of flavoured sake and soju (both still and sparkling, hot and cold!). Even the international chain stores like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts have on their menus sakura-flavoured ephemeral treats like sakura frappuccino and donuts dusted with cherry blossom flavoured sugar sprinkles.

Fleeting, transient and ephemeral all synonyms for the intrinsic nature and short-lived life of the beloved sakura. One that sweeps in and bows out with equal ferocity, leaving behind a trail of fragrance, sweetness and longing for more. Just like that food-centric trip to Japan of mine.

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

Also read | Why Japanese food is so much more than just sushi and ramen

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